As his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched, Donald Trump made clear he was ready for a fight. “It’s an attack on what we all stand for,” he thundered. “It’s a disgrace that a thing like this can happen.”
Around the White House cabinet room, the heads of the American armed services, their chests festooned with medal ribbons, bowed their heads sombrely. This was an American president who was clearly preparing to act first and consider the consequences later. He was not to be crossed.
The target in Trump’s sights on Monday evening, however, was not President Bashar al-Assad, whose gas attack last Saturday was the ostensible reason for the gathering of this war council.
He was aiming at a threat altogether closer to home. The enemies Trump was fixated on were Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
Trump blamed them for FBI raids earlier that day on the home and office of Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer and long-term fixer.
The president was livid because Rosenstein, who set up the Mueller investigation into Trump’s election campaign last year and is supervising it, had allowed the Cohen raids to go ahead.
Syria got barely a mention as Trump laid into Mueller’s inquiry: “It’s a total witch-hunt. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I’ve wanted to keep it down. We’ve given, I believe, over 1m pages worth of documents to the special counsel.
“They continue to just go forward. And here we are talking about Syria and we’re talking about a lot of serious things. We’re the greatest fighting force ever. And I have this witch-hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now — and actually, much more than that. You could say it was right after I won the nomination, it started.
“And it’s a disgrace. It’s, frankly, a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
Trump turned, eventually, to the matter at hand: “With all of that being said, we are here to discuss Syria tonight.” He vowed that Assad’s attack on his own people would be “met forcefully”.
“In our world, we can’t let that happen, especially when because of the power of our country we’re able to stop it,” the president said.
The president was also gearing up, however, for a verbal assault on another domestic foe — James Comey, whom he sacked as FBI director last May. Comey, about to release a tell-all book that excoriates the president, compared Trump to a “mob boss”. Hitting back via Twitter, Trump branded Comey a “weak and untruthful slimeball”.
Today he continued to hurl insults. On Twitter, he wrote: “Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” In five tweets of barbed attacks, Trump went on to also insist he never demanded loyalty from the former intelligence chief.
Throw into the mix the shock news that one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington was quitting — plus three more departures from the national security council — and it was hard to take seriously another Trump tweet: “So much Fake News about what is going on in the White House. Very calm and calculated . . .”
John Kelly, the former four-star US Marine Corps general who has been Trump’s chief of staff for the past eight months, appears to have lost all sense of authority in the White House and any modicum of control over the man in the Oval Office.
In recent days, he has mused openly about quitting, and on Monday as he stood with the top brass listening to their commander-in-chief’s tirade, his face betrayed his emotions.
“During that cabinet room meeting, he looked as if his dog had just died,” one senior Republican said after Monday’s performance. “This is a man who has fought in battle for his country and is seeing everything he holds dear cheapened and tarnished. It’s unsustainable.”
The cause of Trump’s wrath — the Cohen raids — was authorised by a federal judge on the basis that it was likely that evidence of a crime would be found.
Cohen is known to have a habit of keeping tapes of his conversations. He paid $130,000 in hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, who has alleged an affair with Trump. Other payments are suspected to have been orchestrated by Cohen. Such deals could be regarded as illegal campaign contributions.
Prosecutors say, however, they are focusing on Cohen’s business dealings rather than his work as a lawyer. He has been under investigation for months.
On Friday, Trump pardoned Scooter Libby, a George W Bush administration official who was found guilty in 2007 in connection with the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. That move was seen as a signal to those cooperating with Mueller — or perhaps to Cohen if he is contemplating striking a deal with the special counsel — that Trump will ultimately look after them if they maintain their silence.
The danger presented by Cohen was underlined by a report that Mueller had found evidence that he had visited Prague in the summer of 2016, something Cohen has strenuously denied.
Such a visit would confirm a key element of the Russia collusion dossier drawn up by thne former MI6 officer Christopher Steele.
As the war drums over Syria rose to a climax this weekend, so too did the speculation that the president would sack Rosenstein. The possibility had been in the air for months but the Cohen raids thrust the matter to centre stage — and Comey’s book ramped up the president’s anger.
The book is due for release on Tuesday, but will be trailed in an ABC television interview with Comey tonight.
Recalling a conversation with Trump, Comey says he was obsessed with the allegation — contained in the Steele dossier — that a Russian blackmail tape existed of Trump asking prostitutes to urinate on a bed in a room at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow.
“For about the fourth time, he argued that the golden showers thing wasn’t true, asking yet again, ‘Can you imagine me, hookers?’” Comey recounts. “In an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her.”
Could Comey’s book trigger a domestic crisis for America? The senior Republican predicted: “Comey could just push Trump over the edge, and then we’re in Nixon territory.”
That was a reference to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate independent prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in 1973, which was ruled illegal by a federal judge. Nixon resigned 10 months later.
If Trump were to fire Rosenstein, the man overseeing Mueller, or even Mueller himself, it would almost inevitably set off a constitutional crisis.
Some Republicans are attempting to bring a bill before Congress to protect Mueller, and the extent of Republican dismay was underlined by the announcement by Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Wednesday that he will leave politics at the end of this year.
Ryan, 48, a fiscal conservative, was the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012 and was long considered as central to the future of the party. Bright, modern and technocratic with an understated manner, he had done little to hide his dismay at many of Trump’s utterances.
For all the president’s troubles, however, he may be starting to turn the tide of public opinion on the sprawling Mueller investigation. A CNN poll last week found that 54% of Republicans believed Mueller was not conducting a fair investigation, up 10 points over the past six months.
The Sunday Times