WASHINGTON — President Trump appeared on Sunday to abandon a strategy of deferring to the special counsel examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, lashing out at what he characterized as a partisan investigation and prompting fears that he might seek to shut it down.
Trump has long said allegations that he or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election were a “hoax” and part of a “witch hunt.” But until this weekend, he had largely heeded the advice of lawyers who urged him not to directly attack Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
Now, as Mueller extends his inquiry with a subpoena to the Trump Organization in a search for business ties with Russia, the president appears to be losing his patience.
Any attempt to fire Mueller would surely set off a bipartisan storm of protest, and some Republicans expressed alarm about the prospect on Sunday.
While Trump’s lawyers had reassured him that the investigation would wrap up by Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then early in the new year, it seems increasingly clear that Mueller is not about to conclude his inquiry any time soon.
“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and zero Republicans?” Trump wrote Sunday on Twitter. “Another Dem recently added. Does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is no collusion!”
The attack on Mueller, a longtime Republican who was appointed FBI director under a Republican president, George W. Bush, followed a statement by Trump’s personal lawyer published Saturday calling on the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation.
Trump followed up that evening with a tweet arguing that “the Mueller inquiry should never have been started, in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”
The two weekend tweets were the first time Trump has personally used Mueller’s name on Twitter, and it raised the question once again about whether the president might be seeking to lay the groundwork to try to fire the special counsel.
“If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has been an ally of the president, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“When it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference, and there are many Republicans who share my view,” Graham said.
Among them is Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a sharp critic of Trump who appeared on the same program. “People see that as a massive red line that can’t be crossed,” he said.
Flake added that he hoped Trump’s advisers prevailed on him not to fire Mueller. “We have confidence in Mueller.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said in a Twitter message: “Special counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded.”
Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mueller alone. Gowdy warned of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel, which might require him to first fire his attorney general or deputy attorney general.
“The president’s going to have a really difficult time nominating and having approved another attorney general,” Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, issued a statement warning Trump to back off. “As the speaker has always said, Mueller and his team should be able to do their job,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan. His counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had no immediate comment, according to his office.
The White House late Sunday sought to tamp down rumors the president is considering firing Mueller.
‘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,’’ said the statement from White House lawyer Ty Cobb.
The tweets from Trump came a few days after The New York Times reported that Mueller has subpoenaed records from the Trump Organization.
Trump’s lawyers met with 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 specifically.
A president cannot directly fire a special counsel but instead can order his attorney general to do so, and even then has to give a cause such as conflict of interest.
Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former campaign adviser, has recused himself from the Russia investigation, to Trump’s continuing aggravation, the job would then fall to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.
But Rosenstein has said as recently as last week that he sees no justification for firing 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, decided last month to step down. The next official in line would be the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer under Bush.
Trump sought to have 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 Mueller would be crossing a 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 line, but Trump evidently has grown tired of the strategy of being respectful and deferential to the special counsel.
John Dowd, the president’s private lawyer, signaled the shift in approach in a statement given to The Daily Beast shortly after Sessions fired Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy FBI director who worked closely on the Russia investigation with James B. Comey, the bureau director fired by Trump last year.
“I pray that acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier,” Dowd said.
A top adviser to Trump said Sunday that the White House has 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 CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“After a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains no evidence of collusion with Russia,” he said.
When Mueller assembled his team, he surrounded himself with subject-matter experts and trusted former colleagues. But Republican allies of Trump noted that some high-profile members had previously donated money to Democratic political candidates.
In particular, Republicans have seized on donations by Andrew Weissmann, who served as FBI general counsel under Mueller, as an example of bias. Weissmann is a career prosecutor but, while in private law practice, he donated thousands of dollars toward President Obama’s election effort.