On May 17, President Donald Trump’s close ally Newt Gingrich tweeted that former FBI Director Robert Mueller was a “superb choice” to lead the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.
But now, as Mueller’s investigation closes in on Trump’s inner circle, the Fox News commentator and former House speaker is singing a decidedly different tune. The special counsel, Gingrich said bluntly last week, is “corrupt."
His comments echo a growing chorus of conservative voices in and out of government who are increasingly critical of Mueller personally and the Russia probe more broadly. Some are even saying Mueller should be fired, while others have called for a new special counsel to investigate Mueller himself. For the moment, Mueller seems safe: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the only Trump administration official who can fire Mueller, said Wednesday that there was no good reason to remove him or question his ability to do the job.
Rosenstein’s comments won’t stop the growing attacks on Mueller. Critics of the former FBI director point to what they call a mound of evidence — much of it exaggerated, mischaracterized, or outright false — to justify his potential ouster. That ranges from Mueller’s past professional relationship with former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May over the investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser; Mueller’s role in a controversial uranium asset sale to Russia in 2010; and members of Mueller’s staff who have been critical of Trump in private communications, including an FBI agent assigned to the team who texted a colleague that Trump was an “idiot.” (Mueller removed the agent, Peter Strzok, from the investigation immediately after learning about the texts last summer.)
Other critics of Mueller point to the fact that Democrats — including Hillary Clinton’s campaign — helped pay for a salacious dossier about Trump’s Russia connections that some in the GOP believe led the FBI to spy on the Trump campaign.
That’s not all. Media outlets like CNN, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal misreported critical facts in a way that erroneously suggested nefarious or illegal action on the part of Trump associates. They were eventually corrected, but not before lending credence to the Trump-led “fake news” and “witch hunt” narrative surrounding Mueller’s probe.
That narrative is being pushed out aggressively in the conservative media echo chamber. Sean Hannity, Fox News’s top Trump defender and biggest on-air personality, has led the anti-Mueller push since October. On his Tuesday night show, Hannity said “there was collusion” in the 2016 race — but somewhat creatively tried to argue that the wrongdoing was committed by Democrats, not by Trump. (It should go without saying that Hannity is resting, to put it mildly, on extremely thin ice.)
The upshot is that Trump’s allies are trying to build a public case to justify Mueller's firing — and to defend the president afterward.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), one of the leading voices behind the effort to discredit Mueller, told me he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he removed the special counsel. “I think the president should’ve fired Mueller long ago,” he added.
It’s important to note that top Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say they continue to support Mueller’s investigation. Officials in Trump’s orbit have also told him that removing Mueller would be a bad idea. And the White House continues to say Trump has “no intention” of removing the special counsel.
The anti-Mueller push comes as the special counsel appears to be closing in on Trump’s inner circle. Mueller has already charged four people — two of whom pleaded guilty, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Multiple reports suggest Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner could be the next target. And it’s also possible that Mueller’s growing obstruction of justice case — based in part on when Trump fired Comey — could soon implicate Trump himself.
So Trump may be tempted to remove the special counsel before Mueller charges him or aides like Kushner. And if Trump does decide to fire Mueller, it could lead to impeachment calls while Trump defenders will have to explain away what would look like a clear attempt at self-preservation by a lawless president.
It would be a dark moment for America — and some conservatives are pushing the country in that direction.
What follows is a guide to how the anti-Mueller crowd is publicly building its case, where specific attacks come from, and why their criticisms won’t go away anytime soon.
Here are the four reasons why conservatives say Mueller should go
The basic argument that
1) Mueller’s alleged ties to Comey
The first argument for removing Mueller is that he once worked with former FBI Director Comey. That leads Mueller’s critics to claim he can’t lead an impartial investigation.
Mueller and Comey have known each other since at least December 2003, when Comey joined the Department of Justice. They bonded over their displeasure at how the George W. Bush administration handled the war on terror, according to a 2013 Washingtonian report about their relationship. But there is no real evidence that their professional relationship turned into a close personal friendship.
But anti-Mueller conservatives insist that this is the case. After all, they say, Mueller was named the special counsel because Trump fired Comey after he wouldn’t shut down the FBI probe into Michael Flynn.
“Mueller is compromised by his apparent conflict of interest in being close with James Comey,” former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) told Fox News on October 27, before he resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct. And Trump himself called Mueller’s ties to Comey “very bothersome” back in June.
However, legal experts I spoke to say that’s an unfair charge.
“Anybody who had the qualifications to be the special prosecutor would know James Comey,” Renato Mariotti, who served as a federal prosecutor from 2007 to 2016, told me in an interview.
That’s because a special prosecutor needed sterling law enforcement credentials, and Comey, as a leading law enforcement official, likely knew many people who were being considered for the role, Mariotti continued.
2) Mueller’s supposed involvement in the Uranium One deal
Other conservatives also allege that Mueller’s ties to the now-controversial Uranium One sale seven years ago make him unfit to investigate the Trump-Russia case.
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 foundation.
Some GOP lawmakers then took up the issue as well. “It’s important we find out why that deal went through,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said at a news conference in October where the House Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced the beginning of their own probes into the matter.
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.
And while Hillary Clinton was in office, Bill Clinton, her husband and the former US president, received around $500,000 in speaking fees from Russians. That’s led some GOP politicians to claim there was a quid pro quo where the Clintons received money in exchange for Hillary’s approval of the Uranium One deal, although there’s no evidence to prove it.
During a November House hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), a leading Mueller critic, created the chart below, which purports to show the corruption that led to the deal, even though it’s riddled with inconsistencies and clear mistakes. (For example, on the center-right side, why isn’t there a line connecting Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton?)
At its core, Mueller’s conservative critics point to Uranium One to bolster their case that 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.
3) Mueller’s staff is supposedly anti-Trump and pro-Clinton
The personal attacks don’t just stop at Mueller — critics also question the integrity of his staff, including the current and former federal prosecutors and FBI agents assigned to his team.
The attacks began over the summer when reports showed that some of Mueller’s top prosecutors previously donated to Democrats. For example: James Quarles, a top lawyer on Mueller’s team with experience in the Watergate case, donated thousands of dollars to the Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton campaigns. Critics said such donations meant that Quarles — and by extension the Mueller probe itself — couldn’t objectively carry out the investigation.
They also point to Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s top prosecutors, who praised then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates for denying Trump’s travel order in January. Trump fired her soon afterward. “I’m so proud,” read the subject line of a January 30 email Weissmann sent to Yates afterward. “And in awe. Thank you so much. All my deepest respects,” he continued in the message.
Concerns about Mueller’s team intensified when the New York Times reported on the questionable conduct of Peter Strzok. Strzok, a former top FBI counterintelligence official who was on Mueller’s staff, sent text messages critical of Trump to Lisa Page, another FBI agent with whom he was allegedly romantically involved.
On Tuesday, new details about their texts emerged that gave even more ammo to Mueller’s critics. Strzok, a self-identified “conservative Dem,” texted Page that Trump was an “idiot.” He also wanted Clinton to defeat Trump in the election — in another message, he wrote: "God Hillary should win 100,000,000 — 0.”
Anti-Mueller conservatives are also pointing to Strzok’s August 15, 2016, text to Page. "I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy's office" — likely referencing FBI Washington Field Office Director Andrew McCabe (more on him in a bit) — "that there's no way he gets elected — but I'm afraid we can't take that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40." It’s unclear what Strzok exactly meant by “insurance policy” or what “path” Page outlined, but some conservatives feel this was a clear indication that Strzok wanted to find a way to make sure Trump lost the election.
“This goes to intent to action,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leading anti-Mueller Congress member, told reporters on Wednesday. “That to me is big.”
Strzok is also controversial because he was one of the top people investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. He allegedly changed the draft of how Comey publicly described that usage from “grossly negligent" to "extremely careless.” That change had the effect of softening Comey’s criticism of Clinton at a particularly sensitive time in the 2016 campaign. Mueller removed Strzok from his investigative team in July, and Strzok is now under investigation by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog.
But Mueller’s critics aren’t satisfied, and argue that federal law enforcement officials are unfairly targeting Trump instead of investigating alleged crimes by Democrats. Many point to an October 23, 2016, email written by McCabe. In the message, he mentioned that the investigation into Clinton’s private server use would receive “special” treatment.
It’s still unclear exactly what McCabe meant by “special,” but some in the GOP claim McCabe did Clinton a favor. After all, McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, received around $700,000 — more than a third of funds she raised during an unsuccessful state Senate run in 2015 — from political groups connected to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe is close to the Clintons and once served as a board member of the Clinton Foundation.
This, in part, is why some Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee spent hours grilling FBI Director Christopher Wray last week and Rosenstein this week about Strzok, McCabe, and whether there is broader anti-Trump bias in American law enforcement.
“We cannot afford for the FBI — which has traditionally been dubbed the premier law enforcement agency in the world — to become tainted by politicization or the perception of a lack of even-handedness,” Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte said during the Wray hearing.
But Mariotti said it’s normal for investigators to hold strong political views even in politically charged probes. “If we wanted to hire people who had no political views, we would have no people in law enforcement,” he told me. “What we ask is that they don’t allow those beliefs to affect their decision-making.”
4) The Democrats allegedly paid for the Trump-Russia dossier
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.
But the Washington Post reported in October that Democrats, including the Clinton campaign, helped pay for the dossier. And 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), who is calling for inquiries into Mueller’s investigation, told me in an interview.
The saga began during the Republican primary, when billionaire GOP donor Paul Singer paid a Washington research company, Fusion GPS, to look into Trump.
Once Trump became the Republican nominee for president, Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, paid Fusion GPS through the law firm Perkins Coie to continue its research. The company then hired Steele to investigate Trump’s Russia ties, and he proceeded to speak with his Russian contacts to gather information. Steele’s work resulted in the now-infamous dossier.
That’s why some anti-Mueller politicians claim the Democrats colluded with Russia to win the election. “We know now without a shadow of a doubt that the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, paid Fusion GPS and Steele to acquire this dossier, which required colluding with Russian operatives and Russian nationals,” Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) told Breitbart in a radio interview on November 2.
And last week, Fox News reported that Bruce Ohr was demoted from his role as an associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department because he concealed a meeting he had with Steele during the election. And the optics get worse: Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, worked for Fusion GPS last year in order to investigate Trump. Adding fuel to the fire is that Bruce Ohr worked only four doors down from Rosenstein’s office. Put together, anti-Mueller conservatives I spoke to for this story said it seems like there’s foul play.
But again, there’s no evidence that Bruce’s meeting with Steele or Nellie’s work for Fusion GPS influenced the dossier’s conclusions in any way.
So as far as Trump supporters are concerned, these four issues raise questions about the integrity of Mueller’s probe. But more than that, supporters wonder if the Department of Justice is hiding something sinister: that US law enforcement is conducting a politically charged investigation aimed at removing Trump.
“I think you can look at the smoke and tell there’s a fire somewhere,” Gaetz told me.
“We want the truth and we want justice,” Perry said in an interview with me. “The truth doesn’t have an agenda; it’s just the truth.”
“There’s no way the American people can trust Robert Mueller to investigate anything Russian-related”
The case against Mueller isn’t just being made in Congress — it’s also playing out in conservative media.
As Vox’s Alvin Chang reported, Fox News has for weeks tried to discredit Mueller. In fact, the network rarely mentions Mueller without also bringing up Hillary Clinton and her alleged scandals.
But the driving force behind Fox News’s anti-Mueller coverage is Sean Hannity. He’s explicitly called for Mueller’s ouster, using the Uranium One issue as one of the reasons the special counsel should be forced out.
“Back in 2009, he was the FBI director. This was when the bureau, the FBI, so clearly had this information [about Uranium One]. He had conflicts of interest. There’s no way the American people can trust Robert Mueller to investigate anything Russian-related,” Hannity said in October.
He’s escalated his attacks on Mueller in recent weeks. Just this month, Hannity called Mueller “a disgrace to the American justice system” and the “head of the snake,” referring to his investigative team.
Hannity also consistently invites Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow to be a guest on his show. On Tuesday, Sekulow used his guest spot to say Mueller’s alleged indiscretions require a special counsel investigation.
And Hannity isn’t the only Fox News host attacking Mueller. Jeanine Pirro, a prominent voice on the network, thinks Mueller’s team needs to be removed and should go to jail.
“There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and our Department of Justice,” she said in a monologue on December 9. “It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs.”
And Laura Ingraham, a top conservative pundit who interviewed to be Trump’s press secretary, said on December 5 that Mueller’s investigators “should all step aside.”
But it isn’t just Fox News making the case. On October 25, the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board called on Mueller to resign because of his proximity to Comey. Similar pieces have appeared in National Review, Gateway Pundit, and the New York Post.
It also doesn’t help Mueller that the mainstream media recently misreported some aspects of the Russia probe, adding to the “fake news” narrative Trump built around the investigation.
Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal had to correct their early December stories where they reported that Mueller sent a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for data about Trump’s business dealings. It turns out Mueller requested files about people affiliated with Trump, but not Trump himself.
But CNN made the most prominent recent mistake. Last Friday, it reported that Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., and other members of the campaign received an email from WikiLeaks email on September 4, 2016. The message offered a website and an encryption key that would give the campaign access to documents WikiLeaks stole. But it turns out the email was actually sent on September 14 — a full 10 days later.
That’s crucial: On September 13, WikiLeaks released a trove of emails it stole from the Democratic National Committee. That means CNN’s mistake implied the Trump campaign knew about the email theft before WikiLeaks rolled out the documents publicly. CNN has since corrected the error.
On December 9, one day after the CNN story, Trump tweeted that “Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday.” Trump had already called the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” in June — and bad reporting surely won’t change the president’s mind.
But ultimately, the anti-Mueller movement simply wants Mueller and the Justice Department to address their concerns — and they feel they’re not getting the answers they want.