President Donald Trump has an end of year message for the conservatives who want him to fire special counsel Robert Mueller: The former FBI chief is safe, at least for now.
That’s one of the biggest takeaways from the president’s interview with the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt on Thursday in which Trump said he feels confident that the special counsel probing the Trump team’s possible collusion with Russia will ultimately treat him “fairly.” Trump continues to insist that there was no collusion and that he, personally, did nothing wrong.
Trump’s comments are a potential setback for anti-Mueller conservatives in and out of government who’ve spent much of 2017 attacking the probe and the integrity of the former FBI chief himself. In Congress and on Fox News, they routinely call for Mueller’s ouster and even try to discredit members of the special counsel’s team for perceived bias against the president.
On Tuesday, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) went so far as to demand a “purge” of perceived anti-Trump FBI agents during an MSNBC interview.
But in the new interview, Trump chose not to go as far as his conservative colleagues and instead said Mueller will likely find Trump didn’t collude with Russia.
By discrediting Mueller and those that work for him, Trump’s allies aim to lay the groundwork for the special counsel’s firing. They also want any future Mueller decision to indict senior White House aides — and potentially Trump himself — to look like politically motivated decisions. That tactic could help Republicans in Congress bat down calls for impeachment if Mueller ultimately finds clear evidence of presidential wrongdoing.
Trump could still change his mind
The New York Times interview may provide a measure of comfort for Democrats and others frightened that Trump might abruptly fire Mueller. But it’s far too soon to conclude the special counsel is safe for the long term.
That’s because Trump’s lawyers continually tell the president that Mueller won’t charge him with a crime. Trump’s lawyers — who consist of a team of personal attorneys that defend Trump as an individual and a separate group of attorneys who defend the White House as an institution — also note he’s not under investigation.
Further, John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, claimed in a December 4 interview with Axios that the president can’t obstruct justice because he’s the nation’s chief legal officer. That’s important: Mueller is also looking into whether or not Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May after he wouldn’t stop the probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And if Dowd felt comfortable offering that line of defense in public, it’s a near certainty that he told Trump the same thing in private.
Yet some of Trump’s lawyers also told him that Mueller would exonerate him by Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and then the beginning of 2018. If the deadline keeps moving backward, it’s possible Trump could lose his patience and lash out by either firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe.
If either go, their respective dismissals could spark a political crisis where conservatives applaud the moves and liberals claim Trump tried to obstruct justice.
Finally, Trump may panic if Mueller continues to move closer into his inner circle. The investigation already charged four members of Trump’s campaign with crimes, and two of them — including Flynn — agreed to cooperate with the probe. Their assistance could help Mueller obtain more information on other top Trump personnel. Multiple reports indicate that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, may currently be in Mueller’s crosshairs.
Trump’s comments to the Times, then, are striking because they come at the tail end of a year that saw conservatives mount a well-coordinated campaign against Mueller. The big question is what 2018 will bring.
The conservative case to fire Mueller
It’s worth looking more closely at the case conservatives are making to discredit and remove Mueller. Trump’s comments in the Times interview showed he appreciates that campaign: “Great congressmen, in particular, some of the congressmen have been unbelievable in pointing out what a witch hunt the whole thing is,” he told Schmidt and Michael Shear on Thursday.
First, the anti-Mueller crowd points to Mueller’s alleged ties to Comey. It’s well known that Mueller and Comey worked together at the Department of Justice since at least 2003, but some conservatives think they have a close friendship. Trump himself called Mueller’s ties to Comey “very bothersome” back in June.
The charge here is that Mueller can’t possibly run a fair investigation against Trump because he’s so close to the former FBI director Trump unceremoniously fired. But there’s currently no evidence that the Mueller-Comey professional relationship turned into a personal one.
Second, some conservatives say Mueller was too involved in the 2010 Uranium One deal. Here’s the backstory: In 2010, Russia’s nuclear power agency purchased a controlling stake in a Toronto-based energy company called Uranium One. The company had mines and land in a number of US states with huge uranium production capacity. The US State Department, which Hillary Clinton led at the time, signed off on the purchase, as did eight other US federal agencies and a number of additional independent federal and state regulators.
However, in October 2017 Fox News began pushing in earnest a distorted (and now thoroughly debunked) version of the story, claiming that Clinton had personally approved the sale of “20 percent of our uranium” to Russia in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation. And here’s where some conservatives say Mueller fits in: He led the FBI during an investigation into a possible Russian bribery and extortion scheme that some Republicans believe cleared the way for the sale.
The anti-Mueller crowd thinks all of this shows the former FBI chief has his own complicated history with the Clintons and Russia, making him too biased to fairly and impartially investigate the man who defeated Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
The third piece of “evidence” is that Mueller’s team is anti-Trump and pro-Clinton. They mostly point to a former member of the Mueller probe, Peter Strzok, who sent multiple text messages to another FBI agent disparaging Trump. In one of the texts, Strzok said that Trump was an “idiot,” and in another he said he wanted Clinton to defeat Trump in the election. Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation last summer, but anti-Mueller conservatives claim his messages demonstrate widespread anti-Trump bias in the FBI.
And finally, some conservatives bring up that Democrats helped fund a dossier about possible Trump-Russia connections during the election. The dossier, an intelligence document written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, contains allegations that Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to win the 2016 presidential election. That’s an unproven assertion, however, and is part of what Mueller is investigating.
In a twist, anti-Mueller advocates claim Strzok used the dossier to ask for a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign during the election — another unproven assertion. That’s led some conservatives — and the president — to label the document as a political hit job.
“If we find out that it was used to investigate all these people, to me to a certain extent it nullifies some of this prosecution,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), a leading anti-Mueller Congress member who is calling for inquiries into Mueller’s investigation, told me in a December 14 interview.
It’s unclear if Trump agrees with all the charges leveled against Mueller by conservatives, but he seems at least fine with the anti-Mueller push. That means all bets could be off if Trump feels Mueller starts going after him personally.