Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III isn't done with his investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election, but Republicans increasingly are trying to stack up reasons for the American public to doubt whatever he concludes.
On Tuesday, President Trump’s legal team joined a growing chorus of Republicans who want to investigate the prosecutors investigating the White House, calling for another special counsel to examine decisions and personnel at the Department of Justice.
"The conflicts of interest here and the impropriety is a very serious concern,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said in an interview. "You have to look at all of 2016 and what was going on in the Department of Justice."
Sekulow cited reports that Bruce G. Ohr, a senior official at the Justice Department, had a previously undisclosed meeting with Fusion GPS, a private research firm that compiled unverified allegations about Trump and his aides in a now-infamous dossier that emerged last year. Ohr’s wife apparently worked for the firm, although it’s unclear if her work overlapped with last year’s campaign.
The issue was the latest that Trump’s supporters have seized upon to paint investigations of the president as partisan in nature. They cite financial contributions to Democrats by some of Mueller’s team of prosecutors, the transfer of a senior FBI agent who had sent what were said to be anti-Trump texts to a colleague, and other controversies as evidence that the probe is fatally flawed.
At the same time, Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, suggested Tuesday that the Mueller investigation may be nearing an end. He said the special counsel’s office has finished all of its interviews with White House officials.
“I think we’re still on a glide path that will not torture the American people well into next year,” he said in an interview.
Trump’s lawyers were careful not to criticize Mueller himself and said the White House will continue to cooperate with his investigation.
But Sekulow questioned whether research for the dossier, which was funded first by anti-Trump Republicans and subsequently by Democrats, was improperly used to obtain highly classified foreign intelligence surveillance warrants that may have intercepted communications involving some of Trump’s campaign aides, a suggestion repeatedly floated by the president’s allies.
The battle over the investigation is almost certain to come up Wednesday when Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein testifies before the House Judiciary Committee. Rosenstein is under particular pressure because he appointed Mueller, directly oversees him and has sole authority to fire him. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation in March because of his own contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Republican criticism of the Mueller probe has mounted steadily in recent weeks, a mix of charges and innuendo that fires up conservative commentators on media outlets like Fox News before ricocheting around Washington and through the halls of Congress.
Democrats, and some outside critics, say the Republican counterattack aims to discredit Mueller’s investigation as he pushes deeper into the White House, and perhaps to lay the political groundwork for Trump to order Mueller’s dismissal. They call the complaints a tactic meant to confuse the public.
The Justice Department “cannot simply assign a special counsel to look at things that bother the White House,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused Trump’s lawyers of “another attempt to muddy the waters and deflect attention.”
"The goal is to create such a cloud of distrust and confusion [that] so many people can’t see straight anymore, even when the facts are right in front of them,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Mueller, a Republican who served as FBI director for 12 years, was appointed in May to determine whether anyone in Trump’s orbit helped Russia interfere in the presidential campaign or committed other crimes. Four ex-Trump aides have faced criminal charges so far, but none for election-related issues.
Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael T. Flynn, and a former campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian officials.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Manafort’s deputy, Richard Gates, have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering for their foreign business dealings before the campaign.
Trump has repeatedly denounced the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” designed to delegitimize his election. The probe clearly grates on him. “Despite thousands of hours wasted and many millions of dollars spent, the Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia,” he tweeted Tuesday.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump has “great concern about some of the conduct that has taken place” in the investigation. Asked if he supports calls for a separate special counsel, she said, “It’s something we would certainly like to see looked at.”
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee first called for another special counsel in July, and the chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), reiterated that request Tuesday. He said a second special counsel is needed to investigate "everything that's involved with the handling of the election by the FBI.”
Sessions, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said he’s “gotten a number of these calls, from Congress and other places.” He said he has ordered a senior attorney to "review cases in our office and make a recommendation to me" if any additional special counsels are needed.
FBI Director Chris Wray faced a barrage of questions at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week about Peter Strzok, a senior FBI agent who was transferred off Mueller’s team in July because he sent what could be considered anti-Trump text messages to a colleague.
Strzok had played a major role in last year’s FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State, an issue that badly undermined her presidential bid. The FBI probe didn’t result in any criminal charges, much to Republicans’ chagrin.
Some Republicans say they suspect Strzok’s texts weren’t the only reason he was moved to the FBI’s human resources division. It’s not against agency rules to have or express a political opinion.
“There’s just no way it’s just anti-Trump text messages that got Peter Strzok — Mr. James Bond super agent — kicked off Mueller’s team,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said in an interview.
Democrats said Mueller acted responsibly by ousting an agent whose texts could have suggested a political agenda in a highly sensitive investigation.
"I don’t know what else you would have wanted [Mueller] to do,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Mueller “did what you would imagine any responsible manager would do.”
Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and author of books about the investigations into former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, said it’s normal for a White House to push back against a special counsel.
"In the heat of battle, virtually every political group is going to try to attack the person who is doing the unpleasant work of investigating their administration,” he said.
Indeed, Gormley said, "the decibel level here is very low when compared to the attacks on Ken Starr,” the independent counsel who led the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations that led to Clinton’s impeachment in the House. Liberals painted those probes as overtly partisan.
Gormley said Mueller has struck a different tone in his investigation.
"Overall, there isn’t a sense that there’s any credible information that this is some witch hunt that was hatched by Robert Mueller,” he said.