One year into the Russia investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III works away, mostly silent. Yet President Trump and his allies have been anything but, and they’ve had some success in undermining public confidence in the sprawling inquiry.
Though the investigation has reached deeper into his inner circle, Trump’s approval ratings lately have ticked slightly higher, despite remaining at historic lows for a president serving during a time of economic growth.
Also, more Americans seem skeptical of the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign’s possible involvement, according to a CBS News poll conducted this month. A slim majority of 53% said the case is politically motivated, up from 48% in December.
That shift in sentiment mainly owes to growing skepticism among Republicans, reflecting their receptivity to Trump’s repeated attacks on what he calls the Mueller “witch hunt” that are regularly echoed by conservative media. As the president faces a possible subpoena to testify, more Republicans see no reason for him to cooperate with prosecutors. And with the prospect of a long fight ahead, perhaps even a constitutional crisis, Trump’s solidifying of his base would give him the political armor he needs.
"There is no question that the continued barrage from the White House, and the depiction of it as a witch hunt, is beginning to resonate among Republicans,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “They want it over with because that will allow the president to get back to his agenda.”
Trump, viewing himself as his best spokesman, has taken an unprecedented lead role in combating the Russia investigation, even at the risk of appearing to obstruct it. He began criticizing the special counsel by name in March after months of comparative restraint, tweeting that “the Mueller probe should never have been started.” The fusillade continued Thursday as Trump marked the anniversary of Mueller’s appointment.
“Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History,” he tweeted. He called the investigation “disgusting, illegal and unwarranted.”
To amplify his attacks, Trump recently added to his legal team brash former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has since waged a war against the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller in frequent television interviews, and made unrealized boasts about getting the special counsel to close the case within weeks.
“We're going to have to look into whether we can challenge the legitimacy of the entire investigation,” Giuliani told “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite morning show, on Thursday.
Yet no one can speak to the base like Trump himself, and his strategy of portraying himself as the victim of persecution befits a president who stokes the same sense of grievance among his voters. The risks, however, are that the investigation could deliver more bombshells beyond the indictments and guilty pleas to date, leaving the president’s defenders — in particular, Republican politicians — embarrassed.
Although Mueller has not yet presented evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russians, the investigation has been full of surprises.
Three former aides, including Trump’s onetime national security advisor, have pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents, and a fourth, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is fighting charges of money laundering, bank fraud and tax evasion. Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, is in the crosshairs of prosecutors in Manhattan, who are developing a separate criminal case with information from the special counsel’s office.
There is enough uncertainty in the outcome of Mueller’s work that one Republican strategist, Brian Walsh, advises candidates to steer away from the issue in their campaigns during this midterm election year with control of Congress at stake.
“There have been revelations people didn’t expect, and there have been indictments,” Walsh cautioned.
The Russia investigation began as a secret counterintelligence inquiry in July 2016, and continued through the election and beyond. After Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017 and told NBC News he did so out of frustration with the Russia investigation, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein — a Trump appointee — named Mueller as special counsel to examine any potential coordination between Moscow and Trump's campaign.
According to Rosenstein’s order, Mueller has a broad mandate to examine "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” In addition to Russian meddling and possible Trump campaign involvement, the Mueller team is examining whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.
The more broadly the special counsel seems to reach, however, the more it’s given Trump and his allies ammunition to claim that Mueller has overreached.
"The American people supported the Mueller probe when it looked at Russia collusion,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told Fox News. “But what we are starting to see is that a lot of it has nothing to do with Russia collusion.”
Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host who has been one of Trump’s ardent defenders, recently tweeted, “The public is recognizing the investigation for what it is: A political witch hunt created by an elite cabal frantic to keep its hold on power.”
Some Republicans and conservative media commentators, echoing Trump, say the investigation has gone on long enough — “It’s time to wrap it up,” Vice President Mike Pence recently told a TV interviewer — and they complain that it’s distracting Trump from important issues like North Korea.
Yet past investigations championed by Republicans during the Obama and Clinton administrations, including congressional reviews of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater land investment lasted much longer.
Democrats and some legal experts have accused the president of a scorched-earth attack on the rule of law because Trump and his party fear what Mueller will uncover.
"What we've seen from the president and some of his allies makes you worry about the future of this democracy,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Yet the attacks apparently have caused more Republicans to oppose the investigation.
While 53% of Republicans in the CBS News poll said Trump should cooperate and be interviewed, that was down from 73% in January. Two-thirds of Republicans said Congress should try to end the investigation.
Trump's overall approval ratings have improved, though they remain under water. Fifty-two percent of Americans disapproved of his job performance while 43% approved, according to an average this week of recent polls by RealClearPolitics.
“Can you believe that with all of the made up, unsourced stories I get from the Fake News Media, together with the $10,000,000 Russian Witch Hunt (there is no Collusion), I now have my best Poll Numbers in a year,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “Much of the Media may be corrupt, but the People truly get it!”
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a close White House ally, cited as evidence of Mueller’s overreach the separate investigation by federal investigators into Cohen, whose home, office and hotel room were searched by the FBI last month. Shortly before the election, Cohen paid $130,000 in hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged tryst with Trump.
“They’re trying to find out if Donald Trump ever lived a playboy lifestyle,” Schlapp said. “I could simply give them a couple newspaper articles and we could get this all solved in 10 minutes.
“The more this looks political, the more this feeds into the idea that the president is being treated unfairly and the more this is a boondoggle,” Schlapp added. “That’s completely to the president’s advantage.”
Trump isn’t the first president to attempt to turn the public against a politically damaging investigation.
President Nixon did so during the Watergate scandal, along with Republican allies in Congress who backed him until incriminating Oval Office recordings were released. When independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was dogging President Clinton, allies of the president formed a war room to convince voters that the case and the related impeachment effort by a Republican-controlled Congress were partisan.
Ann Lewis, a communications advisor to Clinton, explained the strategy in April 1998: "This is a democracy, and the most important court is still the public.”
The House ended up impeaching Clinton on obstruction and perjury charges, but the Senate acquitted him.
Lanny Davis, one of Clinton’s most high-profile defenders during that time, said the Clinton and Trump situations are as different as apples and oranges.
"Attacking Ken Starr in the middle of a partisan effort made sense,” he said. “But attacking Mueller when there was not even a scintilla of evidence that he would be affected by it, and there's no impeachment process, makes no sense."
Solomon Wisenberg, an attorney who worked on Starr’s team, recognizes some of the same tactics, however. “It’s delay, attack and weaken,” he said.
Wisenberg suggested that the attacks by Trump and his allies became more urgent last month after the New York Times reported on potential questions that Mueller wanted to ask Trump, outlining what looked like an obstruction case against the president.
“The whole tone changed,” Wisenberg said. “It got much harsher.”