WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump insisted Wednesday that it is time for Republicans to “finally take control” of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and bring an end to a scandal that’s been looming over his presidency since he took office nearly a year ago.
Republicans were already doing their best to comply. The president’s allies spent the first 10 days of 2018 redoubling their efforts to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and its congressional cousins, and protect Trump from any political or legal fallout.
“They’ve gone with the best defense is a good offense,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Bob Mueller must be made of Kevlar, because they’ve definitely been shooting at him.”
The sheer number of Republican attacks on the Russia investigations in just the first few days of 2018 makes it easy to forget how many there have been. Here are a few:
Last Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who once had a famously bumpy relationship with Trump, backed the president’s close friend and ally, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), in a dispute with the FBI and Department of Justice. The DOJ hadn’t wanted to hand over certain investigatory documents to Nunes, who supposedly stepped down from the Russia investigation last April after he was caught being fed intelligence reports on White House grounds by officials who wanted to shield the president.
The same day, Fox News and other right-wing media hyped an anonymously sourced New York Post story that suggested Mueller’s grand jury contains too many black people. “Right-wing media’s offense-as-defense approach to protecting Trump has been a consistent drumbeat, but at a few intervals it can flare up,” noted Laura Keiter, the communications director at Media Matters for America, a progressive group that tracks conservative disinformation in the media. “We’re seeing it intensify right now — in part because of the feedback loop between right-wing media and congressional Republicans that are acting on right-wing media narratives; and, in part due to the increased pressure on Trump.”
Also on Wednesday, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman whom Mueller has charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., money laundering and a variety of other federal crimes, launched a stunty (and likely doomed) lawsuit against the special counsel, alleging that his investigation is overbroad and improperly authorized.
On Friday, two Senate Republicans — Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) — sent a letter to the Justice Department and FBI asking for an investigation into Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the notorious dossier on then-candidate Trump. Graham once called Trump a “kook” who was “unfit for office” and “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.” He may have had a change of heart.
Republicans in the House are diving into text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page to investigate whether the pair interacted with reporters. Strzok served on Mueller’s team and was removed over the summer after the special counsel learned that Strzok and Page exchanged text messages that were critical of a number of politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Trump. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with officials privately discussing their views on politicians, and text messages the two exchanged may have been part of an effort to cover up a romantic affair they were having. (Regardless, Mueller removed Strzok from his team long before issuing his first indictment in the matter.)
Although he’d laid off attacking presidential rival Hillary Clinton for a short period after the election, Trump has ramped up attacks on the woman he had branded “Crooked Hillary” as his own legal issues have built up. He’s repeatedly called for the Justice Department to investigate her — even since becoming president. And recently the FBI seems to have listened. Despite an expiring statute of limitations, the FBI field office in Little Rock, Arkansas, has reopened an investigation into pay-for-play allegations surrounding the Clinton Foundation. The investigation into the charity had previously been shut down by career prosecutors due to a lack of evidence. But one witness — evidently sympathetic to a Clinton Foundation inquiry — told The Hill it was “extremely professional and unquestionably thorough.” And the Daily Beast reported last week that the FBI, ”acutely aware” of Trump’s demands, is also taking another look at Clinton’s handling of email during her tenure as secretary of state.
Republican moves to protect Trump have so far done little to derail Mueller’s investigation. But they could have serious consequences for law enforcement and freedom of the press.
Reopening the Clinton Foundation probe without compelling new evidence “smacks of pure political partisanship,” Peter Zeidenberg, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, told TPM’s Allegra Kirkland on Tuesday. And the reported reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s handling of email as secretary of state is “preposterous,” Zeidenberg added. “Maybe this is being done for legitimate reasons but, for appearance’s sake, it stinks. The appearances are awful. The optics are horrible.”
Former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing by Trump last spring is part of Mueller’s investigation, wrote on Twitter last month that it was sad that things were at a point “when anyone can be attacked for partisan gain,” later writing longingly for “more ethical leadership, focused on the truth and lasting values” in 2018. “Where are the voices of all the leaders who know an independent Department of Justice and FBI are essential to our liberty?” he asked on Twitter last week.
The moves against Steele, Strzok and Page, meanwhile, could risk infringing on press freedoms. Graham and Grassley’s letter about Steele specifically referenced his contacts with reporters, and leaks of Strzok and Page’s text messages to The Hill have highlighted their alleged contacts with the press. Trump has waged a long campaign against the media and has, like former President Barack Obama before him, called for far-reaching investigations into leaks. If they can’t get information out of Steele, Strzok and Page about their contacts with reporters, congressional Republicans have the power to subpoena reporters they suspect spoke to the trio. The United States has no federal shield law protecting journalists from giving up their sources when subpoenaed, so journalists who refuse to do so sometimes end up fined for contempt — or even jailed.
“I find any effort to delve the relationship between sources and reporters disturbing, as you might well imagine given my background,” said Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter and current Fox News contributor who was jailed in 2005 for refusing to testify about her sources to a grand jury. “These three committees in Congress are supposed to be investigating how the Russians interfered with our democratic process. That’s their mandate, and the first referral they make is Christopher Steele? … They seem to be suggesting that he’s the criminal here.”
On a more fundamental level, the attacks on the Russia investigations risk making the president’s defenders look silly. Despite Trump’s suggestion to the contrary, the special counsel investigation is already under the control of Republicans: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller, a former FBI director, are both members of the GOP. And it was Rosenstein who offered Trump a grounded excuse for firing Comey (a justification that Trump quickly undermined).
That’s not the only irony in the GOP attacks. In addition to pretending Mueller and Rosenstein are patchouli-scented liberals, Republicans — who’ve long tried to align their party with law enforcement interests — have found themselves compelled to paint the largely conservative-minded FBI as a hotbed of progressive activists. Trump’s friend and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called the Mueller investigation a “criminal cabal,” the FBI a “crime family.” Fox News host Jesse Watters called it “a coup” in a clip that was retweeted by Trump son and Mueller target Donald Trump Jr.
But there’s always an incentive to stand behind your party’s president, and undermining the Mueller probe has certainly paid off for some on the right. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) ― who was pushing a measure to kill the Mueller probe way back in August, before anyone had even been indicted ― got a Twitter boost from Trump that endorsed his potential run for Florida governor and led to an influx of support from major conservative donors. DeSantis announced he was in the race last week, citing the “support of the president.”
There is some very bad news for Trump in all this, though: So far Mueller seems entirely unaffected by the attacks on his work.
“He knew from day one when he took this case about the political pressure,” argued Levenson, the former prosecutor. “He’s a professional, and he’ll do his job. If anything it’ll make him more determined. If anything this will make him work harder and faster…. If you have nothing to hide, why are they working so hard to stop him? That’s not political — that’s just common sense.”
Maxwell Strachan and Travis Waldron contributed reporting.
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