A whirlwind of news reports have come out in the past 72 hours related to the Trump-Russia probe that have colored perceptions of the investigation.
On Sunday, Fox News suggested that special counsel Robert Mueller is leading a “coup” against the administration, adding to the growing chorus of Republicans who want a complete shake-up of Mueller’s team and for Mueller himself to be fired.
That same day, the Associated Press dropped a bombshell story that Mueller’s team has obtained tens of thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials during the presidential transition period. This prompted the White House to strike back, saying that officials from Trump’s transition team are questioning how Mueller obtained the emails.
Rumors also surfaced that Trump has become increasingly agitated with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man in charge of overseeing the Mueller probe, raising questions about whether Trump is considering firing him.
And on Monday, NBC News reported that the FBI had warned the Trump campaign over the summer that hostile foreign governments, including Russia, would probably try to infiltrate the campaign. Yet the campaign still continued to engage with Russians.
If you missed any of this because you wanted to enjoy a politics-free weekend or haven’t yet checked the news this morning, no worries. We’ve got you covered.
The FBI warned the Trump campaign that Russians might try to infiltrate it
On Monday, NBC News reported that the FBI told both the Trump and Clinton campaigns in July or August that Russians and other foreign adversaries would try to spy on the campaigns or even infiltrate them.
But here’s the thing: Per the report, “at least seven Trump campaign officials had been in contact with Russians or people linked to Russia” before they received the briefing. And that matters because the campaign didn’t then immediately report to the FBI about those contacts, and they continued to have contacts with Russians after they received the warning.
Donald Trump Jr. corresponded with WikiLeaks, a free speech organization that is seen by some experts as a Russian front, in September 2016. That’s a full three months after the FBI’s warning.
It’s a common practice for America’s enemies to try to spy on current or future American administrations. The issue here is that the Trump campaign made it really easy for Russia to succeed.
Fox News: the Mueller investigation is a “coup”
On Saturday night, Fox News ran a segment titled “A Coup in America?” pushing the idea that the Mueller probe is so corrupt and biased against the president that its goal is actually to remove Trump from office.
"They can't possibly be seen as objective or transparent or even-handed or fair,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said in the segment.
As evidence of this “coup,” Fox News and some conservatives point to two members of the FBI — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — who texted each other during the 2016 election about how much they didn’t like Trump. In one text, Strzok referred to Trump as an “idiot.” In another, he seemed to indicate that there was an “insurance policy” against Trump should he win the election, although it’s unclear what that “insurance policy” referred to.
Mueller removed Strzok from his team in July, seemingly over the text messages, but the Strzok-Page exchanges have led some prominent Republicans to question the Mueller investigation’s integrity. On Sunday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Senate’s second-highest-ranking member, told ABC that "Mueller needs to clean house of partisans."
Importantly, officials in Trump’s orbit have been trying to remind Trump that removing Mueller would be a bad idea. Yesterday, Trump told reporters he has no intention of firing the special counsel.
Still, the once highly respected Mueller is now widely derided by Trump allies in and out of government. That bodes poorly for the special counsel — especially after he further angered the administration over the weekend.
.@KellyannePolls: "The fix was in against @realDonaldTrump from the beginning, and they were pro-Hillary... They can't possibly be seen as objective or transparent or even-handed or fair." pic.twitter.com/DZKKR0OOPo— Fox News (@FoxNews) December 17, 2017
Mueller obtained thousands of Trump transition team emails
Trump has his own email-related controversy now. Seriously.
On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Mueller’s team has obtained tens of thousands of emails from Trump’s presidential transition as part of its investigation. That immediately sparked controversy.
It turns out that Mueller’s probe got the emails from the General Services Administration (GSA) — a federal government agency that helps manage day-to-day government operations — and not from Trump’s transition team directly.
In response, Kory Langhofer, a top lawyer for the transition, sent a letter to two congressional committees claiming that the GSA had no right to give Mueller those emails. The messages were private, Langhofer claimed, not government property.
But legal experts, including top Obama transition lawyer Norm Eisen, disagree with Langhofer’s claim:
I was the Deputy GC of a Transition (Obama-Biden 08). I warned everyone: there is NO expectation of privacy in your transition emails. The clue: emails are "email@example.com." The whining letter from the Trump Transition tacitly admits this: it ends by asking for a legislative fix https://t.co/RfBJPSMmlt— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) December 17, 2017
In other words, Eisen says that since the transition emails were on a government server — hence the .gov part of the email address — the Trump transition team’s correspondence is public property. If he’s right, then Mueller is legally allowed to look at those emails as part of his investigation.
Asked by reporters on his way back to the White House about the emails on Sunday, Trump responded: “Not looking good. It’s quite sad to see that. My people are very upset about it. I can't imagine there's anything on them, frankly, because as we said, there's no collusion. There's no collusion whatsoever. A lot of lawyers thought that was pretty sad.”
A spokesperson for the Mueller probe pushed back, stating, "When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner's consent or appropriate criminal process.” In other words, Mueller’s team felt they had the right to look at those emails.
It’s worth pointing out that Trump’s lawyers keep saying publicly that the Mueller investigation will soon end. But Mueller’s new trove of emails suggests the probe may continue for a while longer — and that likely has put members of Trump’s inner circle on edge.
Trump is unhappy with the only guy who can fire Mueller
You can add Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to Trump’s naughty list for the holidays.
According to the Washington Post, Trump recently talked to his advisers about how much he doesn’t like Rosenstein, going so far as to call him “weak” and “a Democrat,” even though Rosenstein is a Republican.
Trump’s displeasure with Rosenstein has potentially big implications: Rosenstein is widely seen as the only government official with the ability to fire Mueller. And just last week, Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee that he sees no reason to fire Mueller at this point — implying that, at least for now, Mueller is safe.
But if Trump were to fire Rosenstein, that could pave the way for Trump to try to replace him with someone who is more willing to dismiss Mueller on his own behalf. Depending on how far down the line of succession he has to go to find someone willing to do that, it could potentially spark a massive political crisis where the president hires and fires people based on their willingness to help protect him from a criminal investigation.
That’s a scary prospect. But based on the Post story, there is a slight chance of that possibility becoming a reality.