In the last week, investigators on Mueller’s team have been publicly accused of being biased against Trump and of violating criminal procedure to get documents related to his transition. The purpose of the onslaught, according to people close to the White House, isn’t to encourage the president to oust the special counsel, a move that could precipitate a crisis in the Justice Department and potentially a move to impeach Trump.

Rather, these people said, the goal is to sow public doubt about Mueller and his prosecutors in advance of upcoming criminal trials — and to give the president political cover if he wants to start issuing pardons to any current or former aides swept up in the Russia scandal.

“It is definitely a smarter strategy than outright firing of Mueller, because that is likely to create a firestorm,” said Elizabeth de la Vega, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Northern District of California. “It is also entirely consistent with Trump’s modus operandi because he is surprisingly non-confrontational, preferring to be manipulative and, frankly, sneaky.”