President Trump, officials from his administration and political operation, many Republicans in Congress, and conservative pundits and activists are criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller and his team and questioning the fairness of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Liberals see the anti-Mueller campaign — which has cast the investigation as akin to an attempted coup and in the last week escalated to calling for Mueller’s dismissal — as the obvious prelude to Trump firing Mueller.
But it’s best to understand what is happening as an anti-Mueller campaign with four potential goals, only the most dramatic of which is Trump dismissing the special counsel. Fundamentally, this is a campaign to weaken and undermine Mueller, even if he remains in his post.
I should emphasize what seems likely but has not been confirmed directly by Mueller or Trump and his allies (and may in fact not be the case): All of this jockeying is probably about whether Mueller will indict either the president himself or, more likely, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of the few people who has had senior roles in both the 2016 campaign and the White House. It’s not clear whether there are sufficient charges to indict Kushner, but there are indications that he is under serious scrutiny from Mueller. A Kushner indictment would be a huge setback to Trump, not to mention its family dimensions, so scuttling it is likely to be important to the president.
It’s not clear that the anti-Mueller campaign is coordinated, in the sense that congressional Republicans, White House officials and Fox News executives sat in a room together and planned how to attack Mueller and his team. At the same time, the various conservative players seem to be watching each other’s steps, creating what CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has dubbed an “anti-Mueller feedback loop.” For example, you can see anti-Mueller comments first made on Fox News echoed by the president.
Coordinated or not, the anti-Mueller campaign has at least five different elements:
- Attacking Mueller’s team by highlighting text messages that were critical of the president from an FBI official who was on Mueller’s team and donations by some on Mueller’s team to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
- Casting Mueller as a bad manager by in effect suggesting he has hired a team of anti-Trump people and let them run wild.
- Calling for a second special counsel to investigate various controversies from Obama’s presidency and Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state — best understood as a kind of “whataboutism” that would weaken Mueller’s probe by normalizing it.
- Investigating the investigation by disputing its methods, especially the FBI’s use of a “dossier” of information on Trump and his team’s connections to Russian officials that was compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
- Dictating timelines Mueller has not agreed to by proclaiming that the investigation is winding down or that Mueller’s team has already interviewed everyone at the White House, potentially creating an expectation that Mueller’s probe will be done soon regardless of his actual timetable.
Those elements are being deployed for an array of possible ends. I’ve ordered these potential goals from least to most likely to work:
Setting up the firing of Mueller — Trump is an unpredictable politician who makes moves that are risky and at times politically unwise. (The firing of FBI director James Comey was a political blunder, but Trump did it anyway.) So I’m not predicting Trump will leave Mueller in place.
That said, firing Mueller would be way, way worse politically than getting rid of Comey. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller (since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the process), and only he can officially dismiss him. Rosenstein has strongly defended Mueller’s investigation. So Trump would either have to unilaterally change executive branch law to fire Mueller or get rid of Rosenstein, replace him with another DOJ official, and then have that person dump Mueller. It would be Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” all over again.
Would congressional Republicans move to impeach Trump if he fired Mueller? I’m not sure. Here’s what I’m more sure would happen in the wake of a Mueller firing: There would be huge protests across the country; some Republicans (at least outside Congress) would join Democrats in slamming the move; Trump’s already low poll numbers would plunge further; Democrats would become even bigger favorites to take control of the House in the 2018 elections; and a Democrat-controlled House would move to impeach Trump almost as soon as it started meeting in January 2019.
Dismissing Mueller would effectively end Trump’s presidency as we know it, so it would only make political sense if Mueller were about to end Trump’s presidency as we know it anyway (with an indictment of Kushner or the president himself).
Making Mueller more leery of controversial indictments — All of these anti-Mueller moves fit a strategy of trying to publicly browbeat the special counsel to make him leery of bringing forward a major indictment. Mueller now knows, if he did not already, that indicting Kushner is likely to bring the full force of America’s conservative movement against him.
But I doubt that Mueller, with his long record in top jobs (he was the FBI director on 9/11), would be intimidated by Trump’s team. So I see this goal as one that is also unlikely to succeed.
Trying to turn the general public against the investigation — This is the goal that has the most precedent. Nixon allies questioned the Watergate investigation, suggesting that the team of then-special prosecutor Archibald Cox had too many staffers with Democratic ties and constituted a “hostile adversary” to the president. Bill Clinton’s allies spent more than a year attacking independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
By November 1998, as Starr was presenting charges to Congress against Clinton in an impeachment hearing, Clinton’s strategy had worked politically. Only 35 percent of Americans approved of the way Starr was handling the probe, compared to 58 percent who disapproved. But this approach might not work for Trump. First, the nature of the core allegation — that he colluded with a foreign government to help sway the 2016 election — is more severe than the charges against Clinton, who was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice in a dispute centered around his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Secondly, Clinton was a president who won the popular and electoral vote twice and had relatively high approval ratings even at the height of Starr’s investigation.
Trump, in contrast, lost the popular vote and has very low approval ratings. And he may lose the public relations battle with Mueller if current trends continue: A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 58 percent of Americans felt Mueller was conducting a fair investigation, about 20 percentage points higher than the president’s approval rating in the survey.
Trying to turn Republicans against the investigation — American politics was polarized during the 1970s and 1990s, but there is evidence that the polarization and division between the two parties has grown much larger. So if Trump and his allies are aiming to get the vast majority of Republicans to oppose Mueller’s probe and question its findings, that seems to be a realistic goal.
There is already evidence that anti-Mueller sentiment is taking hold in the GOP. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in late November and early December (so before the latest round of Mueller-bashing) found that about half of Republicans doubted the special counsel would conduct a fair investigation, compared to about a third of the public overall. (Quinnipiac also showed about half of Republicans with concerns about the fairness of the Mueller probe.)
If this strategy succeeds, it could yield huge dividends, since ultimately the impeachment and removal from office of a president is a political process. In the short term, redefining support for Mueller as a liberal stance could prevent congressional Republicans eager to please their bases from defending or protecting the special counsel. So far, various bills to keep Trump from firing Mueller have gone nowhere in Congress, suggesting that this type of legislation has already been successfully painted as anti-Republican. In the long term, if Democrats gain control of the House, Senate, or both, Mueller and his investigation being viewed as anti-Republican could literally save Trump’s presidency. If few or no Republicans support a push for Trump’s removal, he is likely to remain in office even if he is impeached, since removal requires 67 senators and it’s unlikely Democrats will have that large a majority in the near future.
“By going public with criticism, you try and polarize reactions,” said Josh Chafetz, a law professor at Cornell University who studies conflicts between Congress and the executive branch.
Trump and his allies could have all of these goals in mind at once: moving the public but particularly Republicans against Mueller; trying to force him to limit or end his probe; and leaving the door open to getting rid of him. But simply creating a trust gap between Republicans and Mueller helps Trump. And that gap is likely to grow, with Fox News personalities, Republicans on Capitol Hill and the president himself regularly attacking Mueller and his team.