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The connections between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition team seem to grow by the day. Now, bank accounts are being investigated and more subpoenas are being written up: Republican are feeling the heat.
Backed into a corner, Trump’s team and their various surrogates across the media have tried to smear Mueller and his investigation before more damage is done. It’s an effort that’s absolutely exploded the past week.
Like any good hit job, this involves seizing on minor or innocuous details from Mueller’s past, his methodology, and the day-to-day optics of party politics, in an attempt to discredit the investigation. It’s a multi-pronged attack that’s may prove effective.
“Mueller Has Conflicts of Interest”
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has been going after Mueller relentlessly. The latest salvo came Tuesday when the Journal tried to paint the investigation as mired in various conflicts of interest. The piece focused heavily on an FBI agent working on the Mueller case who was demoted last summer after it was revealed he sent anti-Trump texts to his then mistress, who was also an FBI employee.
The WSJ is just one outlet attempting to leverage whatever they can to create the appearance of a conflict of interest. In fact, there are people inside the Trump administration doing the same thing. Last summer, The New York Times reported that Trump’s lawyers and aides were scrutinizing political donations as well as past cases and clients in an attempt to damage the credibility of the investigation and Mueller’s team.
Critics of Mueller have gone so far as to go after his team for merely praising their co-workers, like ousted FBI Director James Comey and fired acting attorney general Sally Yates. Just this week, prosecutor Andrew Weisman has taken heat for offering praise of Yates’ when she refused to enforce early versions of Trump’s Muslim ban and subsequently was dismissed.
Though the “conflicts of interest” angle isn’t likely to win mass support, it has provided ammunition for some elected officials. Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert used accusations like these as a reason to call for Mueller’s resignation in November. House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes has claimed to be “furious” at the handling of the investigation. However, it’s not likely that their bluster will have much effect.
“Mueller is Friends with Comey”
One of the more strained aspects of these conflict of interest allegations involve Mueller’s relationship with former FBI Director James Comey. Numerous commentators have argued that Mueller is too close with Comey for an impartial investigation. Many on the right have spent time and energy building the backstory of a close friendship between the two rather than the cordial relationship between co-workers it appears actually exists. It is telling that op-eds alleging a conflict of interest only mention their shared professional relationship and are light on details of a personal friendship between the two men.
Regardless, there are a limited pool of people qualified to lead the investigation. If you take out those with partisan interests or ties to intelligence agencies, it’s likely there won’t be too many qualified choices left. But then, that’s exactly what Trump and Republicans want.
“His Methods are ‘Heavy-handed’”
Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative outlets have also floated attacks on Mueller’s methods. An anonymous source told Fox News that an August raid on Manafort’s home was “heavy-handed, designed to intimidate.” Mueller has also been accused of “prosecutorial overreach.” Former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell has said, “What was supposed to have been a search for Russia’s cyberspace intrusions into our electoral politics has morphed into a malevolent mission targeting friends, family and colleagues of the president.” Given that both Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn’s histories as foreign agents seem incredibly relevant to this investigation, it’s hard to understand this point of view.
In late October, Republican congressman Trey Gowdy took to Fox News to argue that because some charges in Mueller’s probe have leaked to the press, the investigation is not fit to continue. He told Fox News Sunday, “It’s kind of ironic that the people charged with investigating the law and the violations of the law would violate the law.”
It is obvious that at every step of this process, Republicans will look for minor errors and criticisms in hopes of leveraging them to shut down Mueller’s work.
What About the Russian Uranium?”
Republicans also aren’t above making up accusations if it could lead to ending Mueller’s efforts.
One of the strangest smears directed at Mueller actually originated as one of Steve Bannon’s dirty tricks against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. A book, which was the work of Bannon and author Pete Schweizer, titled Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich is filled with allegations against the Clinton that are as clunky as the book’s title. It asserts that Russia had obtained a portion of U.S. uranium reserves and—through a series of partners—donations in response to the cache ended up in the hands of the Clintons. The story has been discredited by numerous outlets but has allowed the right to level charges of a double standard at Mueller.
Though the story has been discredited and it is outside the scope of Mueller’s investigation, Republicans are furious that the special counsel hasn’t taken action, and are launching probes into the issue on their own. Sean Hannity has called for Mueller’s resignation because of the fake story and Sebastian Gorka has suggested that Hillary deserves the electric chair for her role in the scheme.
“We’re Not Colluding, You’re Colluding”
Though the alleged uranium deal is the most convoluted attack on Mueller, the worst yet might be the old “I know you are but what am I” defense. The DNC and the Clinton campaign paid Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on Trump, a common practice in campaigns. This led to the famous Steele dossier (compiled by retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele), which made a lot of assertions about Trump’s connection to Russia. Many of them have proven credible although there is no word on the infamous “pee tape” mentioned in the dossier.
A number of Republicans have decided to ignore the vast amount of evidence that is building up, including personal communications between Trump’s staff and Russians, to argue that because Clinton bankrolled the Steele dossier, the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” orchestrated by Hillary and the Russians. Though the dossier may have been build with the help of internationals, there is no evidence of a quid pro quo.
But, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying to score political points. This line of thinking is best exemplified by Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ statement that “There is clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the president to influence the election.”
Once again, the Wall Street Journal probably went furthest in attempting to push the Democratic collusion angle. In an op-ed titled “Democrats, Republicans, and the FBI” the board led with this opener, “It turns out that Russia has sown distrust in the U.S. political system — aided and abetted by the Democratic Party, and perhaps the FBI.”
It does bear mentioning that in grasping at straws, sometimes the Republicans have scored victories. Bruce G. Ohr, a senior DOJ official, was demoted when it was revealed he had met with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Though this was long before the investigation became what it is today, Mueller’s team has been proactive in refusing to allow for even the hint of actual impropriety.
Still, it is a reminder that right-wing politicians and pundits are already waiting for the next slip up, ready to pounce on anything that could possible end Mueller’s efforts and preserve the Trump presidency.
In fact, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) summed it up all best in a tweet today.
It’s long past time for a Special Counsel to investigate Clinton email scandal, Uranium One, role of Fusion GPS, and FBI and DOJ bias during 2016 campaign.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 8, 2017
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.