President Trump and his campaign organization are going to war against the Russia investigations, said an official involved in the effort, launching a multipronged public relations offensive to spread distrust of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Capitol Hill Republicans and Washington legal professionals say Mr. Trump should keep out of the investigation and focus on governing because his protestations keep the story in the media spotlight and make him look defensive.
But the president is determined to confront head on the allegations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia and expose the investigation to be a political hit job. Marshaling opposition from Mr. Trump’s base, the thinking goes, will make it more difficult for Mr. Mueller’s investigation to bring down the Trump presidency.
“This is a war,” said Bruce Levell, a member of the Trump re-election campaign’s advisory board. “Why would we stop talking to the American people? That is the best thing you can do: Keep talking to your base. And guess what? The base is growing.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday blasted the Russian probe as a “conclusion in search of evidence.”
“They’ve come up with nothing,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’ve been doing this for almost a year now, and what is there to show for it? What has actually metastasized in a way that we can say, ‘Wow, there’s a smoking gun?’ “
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She pointed to Mr. Trump’s rally last week with supporters in West Virginia, saying the president is making good on his promises to the voters while the political class obsesses over a “hypothetical.”
“People just can’t get over that election,” she said. “The president is going to continue to talk about America, and I suppose others, sadly, will continue to talk about Russia.”
Fighting Mr. Mueller’s open-ended probe to the court of public opinion is part of a broader effort to get more aggressive pushing Mr. Trump’s message on every front, which includes the president’s consideration of senior adviser Stephen Miller for the job of communications director after his feisty exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta at a White House briefing.
The Mueller probe into Russian meddling in the election and allegations of Trump campaign collusion appears to be reaching into Mr. Trump’s vast business empire and the financial transactions of his associates, a move the president warned would be crossing a red line.
Mr. Trump also has eroding support among congressional Republicans, who overwhelmingly approved new Russian sanctions that took away the president’s ability to unilaterally lift them. The bill, which the president reluctantly signed into law, sent a powerful message that he cannot count on support from Republican lawmakers.
David K. Rehr, a law professor who teaches strategic Washington leadership at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said Mr. Trump benefits from keeping his side of the story in the public eye and forcing the news media to cover his comments and his rallies.
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“It is one of his limited tools to keep public pressure on what is an open-ended, secretive probe that is likely to go on for years with little accountability of time spent or tax dollars being expended,” he said. “His comments keep the partisanship of the probe in the public eye, with the hopes of undermining its legitimacy.”
Mr. Trump has some distance to go to build the type of popular support President Clinton had when he was impeached by the House but not removed from office in a trial by the Republican-majority Senate. His acquittal in 1999 was all the more spectacular given the bitter opposition to his presidency from the Republican Party.
Mr. Trump remains far from that level of political jeopardy. However, there are lessons to be learned from Mr. Clinton’s survival instincts.
Mr. Clinton benefited from the ability to keep his job approval numbers above 50 percent throughout the scandal over his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment over obstruction of justice and perjury charges.
Mr. Trump’s job approval rating stands at 38 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys.
Last week, Mr. Trump took his case to the American people, telling a massive campaign-style rally in West Virginia that the Russia investigation was a Democratic hoax to threaten his election victory.
“They are trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution,” he told a crowd of more roughly 8,600 people filling an arena in Huntington, West Virginia. “We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”
He gave them the cue to reject as laughable allegations of collusion with Russia to interfere in the presidential election.
“Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight? Any Russians?” he said. “They can’t beat us at the voting booths, so they are trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want.”
Democratic strategist Jim Manley said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was “just extraordinarily divisive stuff” and did his cause more harm than good.
“It may play well with his base, but that’s it,” he said. “It’s turning off more and more Americans while at the same time giving Mueller more ammunition to make his case.”
The next day, Mr. Trump’s surrogates from the campaign were back and hammering home the message.
Lynnette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, the YouTube star sisters from North Carolina who became campaign trail sensations stumping for the Trump campaign last year, delivered the message on “Fox & Friends.”
Mrs. Hardaway said the president was being railroaded.
“We know it was no collusion, and it’s a slap in the American people’s face,” she said. “We got out. We voted for him. We rushed to the polls and voted for him, and now you want to blame Russia. No. These were the American people that voted for the president.”
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.
• S.A. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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