When Robert Mueller was first named as Special Counsel, both Republicans and Democrats praised the choice. Mueller, a Republican, a Marine Corps combat veteran and former FBI Director is widely regarded as a straight-shooter whose principal concern would be getting to the truth.
“Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman, May 17, 2017
“Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.” Former House Speaker and Trump ally Newt Gingrich, May 17, 2017.
At the time, President Trump argued that he had nothing to do with Russia and neither did his team. His allies took him at his word. If that was the case, then Mueller would surely exonerate Trump.
Many months later, it is clear that the President’s team had more than a little to do with Russians, although there is no direct evidence of criminal complicity in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. Still, as Mueller’s investigation unfolds, the expanding web of relationships between people in Trump’s orbit and Russia grows more troubling.
Mueller has secured two indictments of Trump associates on matters indirectly related to Russia. Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, who also worked on Trump’s election effort, turned themselves in to authorities after being indicted on tax and money laundering charges related to work prior to joining the Trump campaign for Ukraine‘s former President Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and a campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos have both plead guilty to lying about contacts with Russia.
And there are other troubling signs as well. Donald Trump Jr’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer on the promise of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton, which never materialized, nevertheless indicated that Team Trump was at least open to receiving Russian help. It bears noting that it was a month later Wikileaks began to produce damaging emails about Hillary Clinton that were hacked from the DNC by Russia’s intelligence services.
Trump’s unusual affinity for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and reluctance to accept the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow was behind the DNC hacks and other efforts in 2016 meant to swing the election in his favor raise eyebrows further.
As the shadow cast by Mueller’s investigation over the White House looms more menacingly, Trump and his allies have stepped up efforts to discredit him.
In an unusual move, Trump’s Department of Justice released a slew of anti-Trump text messages sent between Peter Strzok, an FBI agent reassigned by Mueller from the probe earlier this year, and his paramour, another FBI agent Lisa Bloom.
“The fix was in against Donald Trump from the beginning, and they were pro-Hillary, They can’t possibly be seen as objective or transparent or evenhanded or fair.” – Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway on Fox.
Pro-Trump media, especially Fox News Channel, has breathlessly reported this as an epic scandal that vindicates their belief that Mueller has been running a political witch hunt all along. The fact that Mueller removed Strzok from his team months ago precisely because of these anti-Trump views often goes unmentioned.
Fox, whose owner Rupert Murdoch and biggest star Sean Hannity frequently speak with Trump, has led the charge against Mueller. Over the weekend, Fox host Jesse Watters suggested that Mueller’s investigation was tantamount to a coup. “But, the scary part is we may now have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters,” Watters warned.
Counselor to the President Kelly Anne Conway, appearing with a chyron on screen, “A coup in America?” egged him on. “The fix was in against Donald Trump from the beginning, and they were pro-Hillary,” Conway said. “They can’t possibly be seen as objective or transparent or evenhanded or fair.”
“The anti-Mueller rhetoric in conservative media right now is part of a feedback loop.” – Nicole Hemmer
In an appearance on “Hannity” recently, Fox News legal commentator Greg Jarrett charged that Mueller “has been using the FBI as a political weapon. And the FBI has become America’s secret police.” Garrett compared it to Soviet-era KGB tactics. Hannity agreed. “This is not hyperbole you are using here,” he said.
It’s not clear how much of Fox’s excited hyperbole is a bid to keep its audience engaged and how much is intended explicitly to help Trump. But, as CNN media critic Brian Seltzer has observed, it’s forming a “feedback loop” between the cable network and its number one fan, the President of the United States.
“The anti-Mueller rhetoric in conservative media right now is part of a feedback loop,” Nicole Hemmer, who writes about conservative media, told CNN’s Brian Stetler.
“Conservative media personalities know Trump hates the investigation and wants it shut down,” she said in an email. “They bash the investigation and Mueller, and when Trump sees that happening (say, on ‘Fox & Friends’) it reinforces his belief that the investigation is illegitimate and that he should do something to end it. The likely consequence is that this increases the odds of Trump attempting to fire Mueller.”
Adding to the ruckus, Trump’s campaign attorney sent Congress a letter on Saturday complaining, rather dubiously, that Mueller “improperly” received emails from the Presidential transition on the dubious basis that the emails, sent from government email addresses and government computers, were, in fact, private property.
Trump’s allies in Congress have also raised the possibility that the FBI may have obtained a FISA warrant authorizing surveillance on Carter Page, a Trump campaign aide, and possibly others, based on an opposition research dossier prepared by a former British spy and funded by Democrats. Trump’s administration has so far refused Congressional requests to view the dossier and confirm whether these suspicions are true.
Firing Mueller would allow Russia to become even more of an all-consuming distraction for the White House than it already is.
All this has led many to worry that the aggressive attacks on Mueller may be intended to provide a pretext for firing Mueller over the Christmas holidays. In Congressional testimony last week, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would be the official tasked with doing it, said that he would only dismiss Mueller for cause and knew of nothing that would justify it and on Sunday, Trump told reporters that he was not contemplating firing Mueller.
That is reassuring. If Trump were to fire Mueller, it could provoke a constitutional crisis the likes of which the nation has not seen since Watergate. Rosenstein would likely resign rather than follow the order, just as President Nixon’s Attorney General did when he was ordered to fire Archibald Cox. It would also deepen, rather than assuage, suspicions of malfeasance in regards to Russia, allowing the issue to become even more of an all-consuming distraction for the White House than it already is.
Mueller’s investigation is looking less likely to produce the kind of blockbuster collusion that his detractors imagine. The chaotic shot from the hip Trump campaign does not appear well-suited for complex international conspiracies.
At this point, there’s little hard evidence to suggest that Trump himself was complicit in Russia’s efforts. It’s possible that at least some in Trump’s orbit could have been in knowingly in cahoots with the Russians. But, it’s more likely that any cooperation with the Kremlin was unwitting.
It’s plausible to speculate that the infamous Trump Tower meeting might have been a ruse intended to gauge how Russian intervention on his behalf would be received in Trump World. Donald Trump Jr’s emailed response to an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, “I love it,”may have been all they needed to know. If so, it might be unsavory, but not illegal.
Trump’s bigger risk is that Mueller might find grounds to charge Trump with obstruction of justice in firing FBI Director James Comey. But, here too, things aren’t all that clear-cut. Trump clearly had the power to fire Comey and there’s an unsettled Constitutional question of whether Presidential powers are sufficiently absolute as to render a President essentially immune obstruction statutes. A Republican Congress will be inclined to see it Trump’s way.
Perhaps this is why in recent days, Trump has grown more relaxed, people close to Trump say, about what Mueller might find, telling confidants that despite it all he’s confident that Mueller will exonerate him. If so, the President’s allies would be well-served to calm down and let the Special Counsel go about his work.
Still, some argue its the wrong time to let up on the gas. “You’re starting to win over mainstream conservatives to the backlash over overreach,” a source close to the White House told Axios. Where the White House goes next may be decided Tuesday when Trump’s lawyers meet with Special Counsel for a status conference.