'Don't cooperate': One former Trump aide's lesson from Mueller probe

Awaits report to see if identity is revealed

By Jim Acosta and Pamela Brown, CNN
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(CNN) - A former Trump administration official who cooperated with Robert Mueller's probe is having serious second thoughts about talking to the special counsel's office, citing concerns about being named in the Justice Department's redacted version of the report.

This aide noted the White House requested that former senior officials cooperate with the Mueller probe, going as far as to hand over email addresses for those aides to investigators. That made it next to impossible to not cooperate, the aide said.

The former official scoffed at the notion that President Donald Trump would be mad at aides who talked to investigators, because Trump and his lawyers should have known that people scheduled to sit down with Mueller's team would have to tell all they know in their sessions with the special counsel's investigators.

The Trump legal team has openly discussed how cooperative they have been, even putting out a letter documenting the extent of cooperation. It's been the strategy all along to make it harder for Mueller to insist on an interview.

Now, this former official is nervously anticipating what will be in the redacted version of the Mueller report. This aide claims to have fully cooperated with the investigators, pointing out the indictments in other cases in which Trump associates had been accused of lying to the Mueller team.

Will this person's name be in the findings? This former official has no idea. The lesson learned for future probes of this kind, this source said, is not to cooperate.

"Don't cooperate," the former official said, arguing it would have been better to refuse to cooperate and be compelled to talk to the grand jury instead, and perhaps have some protection in terms of not being identified in the report.

Another former White House aide said the strategy to let witnesses talk to Mueller was good for Trump as it helped him avoid being interviewed, but may not have been so good for the more than two dozen current and former White House officials who met with Mueller's team.

"It's indicative of the 'live now, deal with it later' type of atmosphere in the White House," this ex-staffer said, adding "later has come."

Another source put it this way: "That decision was made a long time ago. Maybe they should have worried about it then what they're worried about now."

The sources said there's some hand-wringing going on with some -- but not all -- of the former aides, particularly among those whose businesses rely on having access to and gaining influence through their relationship with the White House.

The concern is that the Mueller report will potentially put them on the outs in Trump's orbit and hurt their bottom lines. Some of the former officials have been scrambling in recent days, reaching out to others who were interviewed asking if their names will be redacted in the report and expressing concern about what they may have told Mueller more than a year ago.

And a former high-ranking Justice Department official who's familiar with the investigation said there may well be embarrassing details in the report about Trump. This official said it's "possible," but noted the President "is impossible to embarrass."

Trump himself is not bothered by the impending release of the report, according to a White House official who was with the President Wednesday evening.

The official said Trump is "not worried" and "not fuming" approaching the release of the report. The official went on to say that the main results of the investigation are already known and that any "attacks on Barr will backfire." That mood seems to fit with how Trump sounded during a radio interview Wednesday afternoon, in which he announced Barr's news conference.

The Trump campaign and legal team appears to have a public relations strategy in place for dealing with the fallout from the report: A Trump adviser said the first couple of days of responding to the release will be largely handled by the President's outside attorneys. That will drive the conversation before the political surrogates come in and respond more aggressively, the adviser said.

"On the scale of things, this is already an old, boring story," the adviser said, dismissing the possibility that the President will be damaged. "We're bored."

The expectation among some former officials is that the Mueller report could have a chronological narrative of events that could be construed as the President trying to steer the investigation but not doing anything that crosses the legal line.

The former officials expect several examples could be laid out where aides saved Trump from himself, which the President will undoubtedly not like, one of the sources said.

"A lot of what people have said will be embarrassing and may not reflect well on the President and the administration," another source said.

One area of concern for current and former officials is not just what former White House counsel Don McGahn may have told Mueller, but also what his deputies, Ann Donaldson and Uttam Dhillon said.

The New York Times previously reported Dhillon, now the acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief, misled the President about whether he could fire then-FBI Director James Comey without cause because he was concerned his firing would lead to an obstruction probe which ultimately happened.

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