President Trump on Sunday abandoned a strategy of showing deference to the special counsel examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, lashing out at what he characterized as a partisan investigation and alarming Republicans who feared he might seek to shut it down.
Mr. Trump has long suggested that allegations that he or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election were a “hoax” and component of a “witch hunt,” but until this weekend he had largely heeded the advice of lawyers who counseled him not to directly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for fear of antagonizing prosecutors.
“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Another Dem recently added…does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”
The attack on Mr. Mueller, a longtime Republican and former F.B.I.director appointed by a Republican president, George W. Bush, drew immediate rebukes from some members of the party who expressed concern that it might presage an effort to fire the special counsel. Such a move, they warned, would give the appearance of a corrupt attempt to short-circuit the investigation and set off a bipartisan backlash.
“If he tried to do that, that would be the starting of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “When it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the victim where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be permitted to do his job without interference, and there are many Republicans who share my view.”
Among them was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a sharp critic of Mr. Trump who came on the same program. “People see that as a massive red line that can’t be crossed,” he said. He urged Mr. Trump’s advisers to prevail on him not to fire Mr. Mueller. “We have confidence in Mueller.”
Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mr. Mueller alone, warning of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel.
“I would just counsel the president — it’s going to be a very, very long, bad 2018, and it’s going to be distracting from other things that he wants to do and he was elected do,” Mr. Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Let it play out its course. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible.”
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, issued a statement likewise warning Mr. Trump to back off. “As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be capable to do their job,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman. His counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had no comment, as did a number of other top Senate Republicans.
Late in the day, the White House tried to douse the furor. “In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the administration, the White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller,” Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, said in a statement.
The president’s tweet followed a statement by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, on Saturday calling on the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation. Mr. Trump followed up that evening with a tweet arguing that “the Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”
The two weekend tweets were the first time Mr. Trump has used Mr. Mueller’s name on Twitter, not counting a message he once retweeted, and reflected what advisers called a growing impatience fueled by anger that the investigation was now looking at his business activities.
The New York Times reported last week that Mr. Mueller has subpoenaedrecords from the Trump Organization. Mr. Trump’s lawyers met with Mr. Mueller’s team last week and received more details about how the special counsel is approaching the investigation, including the scope of his interest in the Trump Organization.
For months, Mr. Trump had been reassured by his lawyers that the investigation would wrap up soon — by Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s. But with the expansion into Mr. Trump’s business, it seems increasingly clear that Mr. Mueller is not ready to conclude his inquiry.
A top adviser to Mr. Trump said on Sunday that the White House had grown weary of the inquiry. “We have cooperated in every single way, every single paper they’ve asked for, every single interview,” Marc Short, the president’s legislative director, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “There’s a growing frustration that after a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains no evidence of collusion with Russia.”
A president cannot directly fire a special counsel but can order his attorney general to do so. Even then, a cause has to be cited, like conflict of interest. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former campaign adviser, has recused himself from the Russia investigation — to Mr. Trump’s continuing irritation — the task would fall to the deputy attorney general, Rod J.
But Mr. Rosenstein said as recently as last week that he sees no justification for firing Mr. Mueller, meaning that he would either have to change his mind or be removed himself. The third-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, knowing this issue could reach her, decided last month to step down. The next official in line would be the solicitor general, Noel J. Francisco, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer under Mr. Bush.
Mr. Trump sought to have Mr. Mueller fired last June but backed down after his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, threatened to quit. The president told The Times a month later that Mr. Mueller would be crossing a red line if he looked into his family’s finances beyond any relationship with Russia.
The White House made no assertion last week that the subpoena to the Trump Organization crossed that red line, but Mr. Trump evidently has grown tired of the strategy of being respectful to the special counsel. His focus on Democrats working for Mr. Mueller could be aimed at demonstrating conflict of interest that would merit dismissal.
When Mr. Mueller assembled his team, he surrounded himself with trusted former colleagues and experts on specific crimes like money laundering. As the team filled out, Republican allies of Mr. Trump noted that some members had previously contributed to Democratic candidates.
In particular, Republicans pointed to Andrew Weissmann, who served as F.B.I. general counsel under Mr. Mueller. Mr. Weissmann is a career prosecutor but, while in private law practice, donated thousands of dollars toward President Barack Obama’s election effort.
In his Sunday morning Twitter blasts, Mr. Trump also renewed his attacks on James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and Andrew G. McCabe, his former deputy, both of whom, like Mr. Mueller, are longtime Republicans. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey last May, at first attributing the decision to the F.B.I. director’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server but later telling an interviewer that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he made the decision.
Mr. Sessions, under intense public pressure from Mr. Trump, fired Mr. McCabe on Friday after an inspector general found that he had not been forthcoming about authorizing F.B.I. officials to provide information about the Clinton inquiry in 2016 to a reporter.
“Wow, watch Comey lie under oath to Senator G when asked ‘have you ever been an anonymous source…or known someone else to be an anonymous source…?’” Mr. Trump wrote. “He said strongly ‘never, no.’ He lied as shown clearly on @foxandfriends.”
Mr. Trump went on to dismiss reports that Mr. McCabe kept detailed memos of his time as deputy F.B.I. director, just as Mr. Comey did. Mr. McCabe left those memos with the F.B.I., which means Mr. Mueller’s team has access to them.
“Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me,” Mr. Trump wrote. “I don’t trust he made memos except to assist his own agenda, possibly at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?”
Michael R. Bromwich, Mr. McCabe’s lawyer, fired back by accusing the president of corrupting the law enforcement system. “We will not be responding to each childish, defamatory, disgusting & false tweet by the President,” he wrote on Twitter. “The whole truth will come out in due course. But the tweets confirm that he has corrupted the entire process that led to Mr. McCabe’s termination and has rendered it illegitimate.”
In suggesting that Mr. Comey lied under oath to Congress, Mr. Trump appeared to refer to a comment by Mr. McCabe that the former director had authorized the news media interaction at the heart of the complaint against him. The president’s Republican allies picked up the point on Sunday and pressed for appointment of a prosecutor to look at the origin of the Russia investigation.
“So we know that McCabe has lied” because the inspector general concluded he had not been fully candid, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, said on Fox News. “Now he’s saying about Comey — Comey may have lied as well. So I don’t think this is the end of it. But that’s why we need a second special counsel.”
Other Republicans, however, suggested that the Trump administration was going too far. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida criticized the decision to fire Mr. McCabe on a Friday night shortly before his retirement took effect, jeopardizing his pension.
“I don’t like the way it happened,” Mr. Rubio said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “He should’ve been allowed to finish through the weekend.” Speaking of the president, he added: “Obviously he doesn’t like McCabe and he’s made that pretty clear now for over a year. We need to be very careful about taking these very important entities and smearing everybody in them with a broad stroke.”