Backed into a corner by Robert Mueller, the indefatigable special counsel who’s looking into Russiagate, the Trump family’s finances, and Trump’s possible efforts to obstruct justice, the president is lashing out. In the past few weeks, especially since mid-July, Trump, along with his lawyers and key conservative allies, launched a barrage of attacks aimed at discrediting Mueller, possibly as a prelude to having him fired.
But at the same time, while Mueller maintains complete radio silence, others have spoken out strongly in his defense—including, as it turns out, a growing number of Republicans.
In Congress, remarkably, several Republican senators have joined with their Democratic colleagues to propose legislation restricting Trump’s ability to oust Mueller. One pair is made up of Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE), and another is from Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Both pieces of legislation would do essentially the same thing: Were Trump to ask the Justice Department to fire Mueller, that decision would have to be reviewed by a three-judge panel. Appearing on Fox News Sunday on August 6, Tillis was asked if his proposed bill was aimed squarely at Trump. “There’s no question that it is,” said Tillis. “I don’t believe the investigation is a witch hunt.” Graham, for his part, said that it “could be the beginning of the end” for Trump’s presidency were he to fire Mueller.
Rich Lowry, the conservative editor of National Review, appearing on the same Fox News Sunday broadcast, warned the president in the strongest possible terms that purging Mueller would not be a good idea. “President Trump needs to realize, if he fires Robert Mueller, there’s some significant chance that eventually Mueller will be the lead witness in his impeachment hearing,” said Lowry. Those, of course, would be impeachment proceedings carried out by a Republican-led House of Representatives.
In another remarkable move, Senate Republicans united to prevent Trump from firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installing a replacement as a “recess appointment” that wouldn’t require confirmation by the Senate. They did so by setting up a procedure under which the Senate would not formally recess during the August break.
Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, added for good measure that there was “no way” that the Senate would consider confirming a new AG if Sessions were fired. That’s important, because Trump cannot fire Mueller himself but would have to ask the Justice Department to do it. Sessions has recused himself from Russiagate, thanks to his still unexplained meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, so he can’t do the firing, and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein has pretty much said he won’t do it.
It isn’t certain, yet, how extensive the opposition is among the GOP in Congress and among Republicans at large to Trump’s jihad against Mueller, Sessions, the FBI, and the Justice Department. But it’s clear that it’s there and that it’s growing. Why, exactly? Perhaps it’s simply that many Republicans, especially in the Senate, resent Trump’s incessant attacks on Sessions, an ultraconservative former colleague. Perhaps it’s because the Republicans resisting Trump actually believe in that American thing called the “rule of law.” And perhaps—best possibility of all—it’s because Republicans have realized that distancing themselves from Trump is their best hope of avoiding an electoral catastrophe in 2018, and that their chances of being reelected might improve if they’re not seen as having colluded with an out-of-control president hellbent on obstructing justice.
Meanwhile, perhaps having thoughts along similar lines, Trump is engaged in a full-scale effort to discredit and smear Mueller. As far back as late June, in fact, Trump began his campaign to paint him as hopelessly partisan and unfair. “I can say that the people who have been hired [by Mueller] are all Hillary Clinton supporters,” Trump said on Fox and Friends. He added, “He [Mueller] is very good friends with [fired FBI Director] Comey, which is bothersome.” As for dealing with Mueller, presumably by having him fired, Trump said, “We’re going to have to see.”
On July 20, The New York Times headlined its story on the Trump-led counteroffensive: “Trump Aides, Seeking Leverage, Investigate Mueller’s Investigators.” The paper reported that Trump’s team—which is led by Ty Cobb, a Washington superlawyer—is “scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by Robert S. Mueller III, looking for conflicts of interest.” Part of what they’re doing, said the Times, is “scrutinizing donations to Democratic candidates” and looking at “investigators’ past clients.” The goal, quite clearly, is to tar Mueller as running a team in thrall to the Democrats.
The very next day, Kellyanne Conway, the president’s spinmistress, began slamming Mueller for his team’s alleged Democratic leanings. On July 21, appearing on Fox and Friends, Conway said that members of Mueller’s team “clearly wanted the other person [i.e., Hillary Clinton] to win,” and she questioned the “political motivations” of Mueller’s lawyers. Asked on CNN about getting to the truth behind the Russia allegations, Conway scoffed: “Isn’t Mr. Mueller and his band of Democratic donors doing that?” Conway kept up the barrage, saying on the August 6 edition of ABC’s This Week that the White House will “cooperate with Bob Mueller and his investigation, even though…many of them are Democratic donors.”
Needless to say, while some of Mueller’s team members did indeed make relatively small contributions to Democratic candidates, that doesn’t amount to evidence of bias, nor does it discredit the work they’re doing. According to ThinkProgress, three of Mueller’s attorneys made donations to Democrats totaling just $56,000 over the past three decades, and nearly all of that was from just one of the investigating attorneys, while according to Business Insider, as many as seven of the 16 attorneys may have given money here and there to Democrats—though, as even Fox News reports, some of those same lawyers also donated cash to Republicans, too, while a handful of others gave about $200 to one or two Democrats.
Mueller himself, described in nearly every profile as the straightest of straight arrows, himself leans Republican, and he was appointed to the Justice Department in 1989 by George H.W. Bush and to his 10-year term as FBI director in 2001 by George W. Bush. And, as three lawyers writing for the Los Angeles Times pointed out, according to the Justice Department’s own stringent rules, “campaign donations do not create a conflict of interest.”
A string of lawyers with strong credentials in the field of ethics each told Politico last month that Trump’s critique of Mueller on grounds of political bias were utterly groundless. “The arguments from the Trump camp are either cynical or further evidence for the fact that the president apparently has no ability to conceive of the difference between the professional and the personal,” said Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at Duke University. “To anyone who actually knows conflicts law—and Painter and I have between us spent over half a century on the subject—the Trump team’s allegations are garbage,” said Norm Eisen, President Obama’s ethics czar, referring to Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.
Nonetheless, picking up on Kellyanne Conway’s lead, likely at the instigation of Trump’s own legal team, the pro-Trump media echo chamber unleashed a barrage of attacks painting Mueller’s team as partisan. “Now, this guy Mueller has staffed up with many anti-Trump, anti-Republicans. He’s got a bunch of Obama lawyers, a bunch of Hillary lawyers who’ve also been fundraisers, bundlers, big time donors,” proclaimed Rush Limbaugh. And Breitbart News, formerly headed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior adviser, highlighted Paul Ryan in exposé fashion for his defense of Mueller against trumped-up charges of bias. Ryan, who said that Mueller is “anything but [a] biased partisan,” precipitated howls of outrage from Breitbart’s loyal followers. Typical of the comments: “Ryan is doing the work of his Globalist masters just like Mueller.”
An even more scurrilous attack on Mueller came from Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, and Alan Dershowitz. Both raised the fact that the grand jury reportedly empaneled last month in Washington, DC, would be inherently biased against the president because Washington is a Democratic Party stronghold. Dershowitz went so far as to warn, in an interview with WABC, that the “ethnic and racial composition” of the nation’s capital, which is heavily African-American, would tilt likely jurors against Trump. And Gingrich chimed in, saying “guess how biased” the grand jury will be.
The president unleashed a Twitter barrage on July 22 trying to paint Mueller, the Justice Department, and his own attorney general as somehow doing the Democrats’ dirty work. Among the highlights of Trump’s tweetstorm: He wondered angrily why the “Special Council” [sic] wasn’t investigating Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (July 22), said Attorney General Sessions “has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes” (July 25), accused the acting FBI chief of getting $700,000 from Clinton for his wife’s political campaign (July 25), and asked “why didn’t Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe” for alleged Clinton ties (July 26).
Trump has shown no sign that he’s ready to recognize the reality that he can’t block Mueller without doing fatal damage to his own political future. During his bizarre, rambling political rally in West Virginia last week, Trump turned repeatedly to the Russiagate affair, calling it “the totally made-up Russia story.” This despite having complete access to all of the top-secret information the US intelligence community has about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania?” Trump asked the raucous audience. “Are there any Russians here tonight? Any Russians?”
That sort of bombast may win him cheers in Huntington, West Virginia. But it won’t gain him support among his own party in Capitol Hill. And, needless to add, it won’t stop Robert Mueller’s intrepid sleuths from expanding their inquest.