John Dowd, the lead lawyer representing President Donald Trump in the special counsel's Russia investigation, left the legal team on Thursday partly because of the hiring of a new attorney who is expected to take a more confrontational approach, two people close to the team said.

Mr. Dowd's resignation stunned some of Mr. Trump's advisers, who weren't expecting him to depart at a phase of the investigation that involves sensitive dealings with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mr. Dowd has been a central player in negotiating terms of a possible interview between the Republican president and Mr. Mueller, whose probe includes whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice in firing James Comey as FBI director to try to stop the Russia probe.

Mr. Trump has denied obstructing justice. The negotiations over an interview have recently entered more-advanced stages, according to a person close to the legal team.

Legal experts said it is unusual for an attorney who figures so prominently in a case to step aside in the thick of an investigation.

"Whatever is going on behind the scenes, it must be pretty chaotic—and this will make it more chaotic," said Peter Hardy, a former federal prosecutor and a white-collar defense lawyer.

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