As President Trump’s lawyers were preparing this week to meet with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, their client continued to undermine Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
Echoing a complaint by lawyers for his transition team that Mueller had “unlawfully” obtained tens of thousands of its emails from the General Services Administration, the president on Sunday said: “It's not looking good. It's quite sad to see that. My people are very upset about it…. A lot of lawyers thought that was pretty sad." (A spokesman for Mueller insisted that the emails had been obtained lawfully.)
In response to a question last week about whether he might pardon former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is assumed to be cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, Trump said: “I don't want to talk about pardons with Michael Flynn — yet.” (Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s lawyers, later said: "There is no consideration at the White House of any pardon for Michael Flynn." But whom would Flynn be more likely to believe?)
If Flynn and other potential cooperating witnesses believe that Trump might pardon them, Mueller would lose much of his leverage — making it unnecessary for Trump to fire the special counsel in order to frustrate the investigation.
Meanwhile, the president’s Amen Corner at Fox News has continued its campaign of vilification against Mueller and the FBI. For example, Sean Hannity has called the Mueller investigation a “giant cesspool ... full of corruption, partisanship and unbridled bias” and has said that “Mueller’s stooges literally are doing everything within their power and then some to try and remove President Trump from office.” This is delusional nonsense.
In a normal presidency, it would be unfair to draw a connection between the rantings of a president’s most feverish cheerleaders in the media and the chief executive. But Trump has made it clear that he and Fox News exist in a sort of feedback loop. (In retweeting a Hannity Thanksgiving greeting the president gushed: “A great guy (with great ratings)!” It’s not paranoid to worry that Fox’s highly suggestible First Viewer might be impelled by what he sees on television to move against Mueller.
Perhaps most ominous, some Republican members of Congress increasingly are sounding like Fox News commentators in besmirching Mueller’s investigation and the FBI and pushing unsupported conspiracy theories. When Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, defended the special counsel in an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio suggested that “the Comey FBI and the Obama Justice Department worked with one campaign to go after the other campaign.” That is likely to be music to Trump’s ears.
Republicans also have grossly exaggerated the importance of the fact that Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who was involved in the Mueller inquiry (and the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails), exchanged text messages critical of Trump. Strzok was transferred, and there is no evidence so far that he was influenced by his political beliefs in the way he performed his duties, either as part of the Mueller investigation or in connection with the Clinton inquiry. (Strzok’s activities are under review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.)
Trump already has shown he is susceptible to conspiracy theories, especially if they accord with his view that the intelligence services and law enforcement are biased against him. This month he tweeted the absurd assertion that the reputation of the FBI was “in Tatters, worst in History!"
Several obstacles stand in the way of an effort by Trump to fire Mueller or undo his investigation through the use of his pardon power, including (presumably) the advice of his lawyers and the near-certainty that any move against Mueller would provoke a popular uprising and demands for impeachment.