Robert Mueller’s glow is fading.
The special counsel who earned bipartisan praise last month as an unimpeachable investigator who would give President Donald Trump a fair shake in the Russia probe is now taking heat from Trump surrogates intent on trying to undercut his integrity.
Hardball complaints are coming at Mueller from several directions. His impartiality is being questioned because one of his likely chief witnesses, the ousted FBI director James Comey, is a longtime friend. Others have flagged past campaign contributions from some of Mueller’s newly-appointed prosecutors to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. A few say the whole probe is a sham and that Mueller should be removed as special counsel.
The wave of freelance attacks, which gathered steam over the weekend following Comey’s dramatic testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoes tactics used by Democrats in the 1990s to undercut special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation into the Clinton White House.
“I think the idea of having an enemy when you’re the object of a special prosecutor is a very important one,” said Dick Morris, who helped pioneer the anti-Starr strategy as a Clinton adviser but is now a Trump fan.
“Clinton only survived a special prosecutor because he made Ken Starr the enemy,” Morris added.
The attacks on Mueller started taking shape last week. Sidney Powell, a former Justice Department attorney who has written extensively about overzealous prosecutors, wrote an op-ed questioning one of Mueller’s staffers on the conservative site Newsmax, which is run by Trump friend Chris Ruddy. Powell zeroed in on Andrew Weissmann, who led the prosecution of Enron executives in the early 2000. That task force, she wrote, “quickly devolved into a cabal that used mob tactics itself.”
Conservatives kept up their complaints on Monday. Writing in the Washington examiner, columnist Byron York suggested Mueller may not be the right person for the job because he’s been friends with Comey for 15 years.
“Is that a conflict? Should a prosecutor pursue a case in which the star witness is a close friend? And when the friend is not only a witness but also arguably a victim – of firing – by the target of the investigation? And when the prosecutor might also be called on to investigate some of his friend’s actions? The case would be difficult enough even without the complicating friendship,” York wrote.
The anti-Mueller pot also is being stirred on Twitter. Ann Coulter complained in a post that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “never should’ve recused himself” from the Russia investigation, adding: “Now that we know TRUMP IS NOT UNDER INVESTIGATION, Sessions should take it back & fire Mueller.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in a Sunday interview on Fox News echoed the president’s complaints that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt,” got a bit more specific on social media on Monday. He wrote: “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring. Check fec reports. Time to rethink.”
It was a big reversal for the former House speaker, who wrote in a Twitter post on May 17, the day the Justice Department announced the special counsel appointment: “Robert Mueller is a superb choice. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Media should now calm down.”
Other Trump associates in recent days have been circulating links to federal fundraising databases showing several of Mueller’s new hires have given to Democrats. They include Weissmann, who is on detail from his post as head of DOJ’s criminal fraud division, who donated $2,300 to Obama during the 2008 campaign; Mueller’s former law partner, James Quarles, who donated $4,600 to Obama for the 2008 and 2012 campaigns and $2,700 to Clinton in 2016 (FEC records show he’s also donated to prominent Republicans, including Sen. George Allen and Rep. Jason Chaffetz); Michael Dreeben, who gave $500 to Obama for the 2008 campaign, as well as $1,000 to Clinton in 2006; and Jeannie Rhee, a former DOJ attorney who donated $5,400 to Clinton in 2015 and 2016, as well as $4,800 to Obama in 2008 and 2011.
Rhee also represented the Clinton Foundation in 2015, where her partner was Democratic Washington powerhouse attorney Jamie Gorelick—who now represents Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Morris, who now supports the Trump White House, called the special counsel’s hiring of past Democratic donors “a huge mistake on Mueller’s part.”
“He has to have a staff of virgins,” Morris said.
Trump and his associates haven’t shied away from aggressive tactics on other aspects of the Russia investigation. Last week, the president himself accused Comey of lying to Congress while under oath about conversations the two men had in the Oval Office and on the telephone regarding the 2016 campaign probe. The Trump White House had outsourced its initial attacks against Comey to prominent surrogates like the Republican National Committee, Trump personal attorney Marc Kasowitz, and the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
The shift from targeting Comey to targeting Mueller became apparent this weekend, when one of the president’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow, in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” refused to rule out whether the president would pledge not to fire the special counsel. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday”, RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said that while Mueller’s probe will “run its course” she also hoped it would “end quickly.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Kasowitz, Mark Corallo, declined to comment, as did Mueller’s spokesman Peter Carr.
Even though it was done during the Clinton era against Starr, Democrats are warning that slamming the investigator remains a risky approach.
“It’s a shameful, shameful ploy,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor concerning the conservative attacks on Mueller. “The right must be afraid of what Mr. Mueller’s going to find.”
Added Adam Goldberg, a former special associate counsel in the Clinton White House, “Why would you want to bait them and attack them? It would be crazy and motivate them on the investigation side.”
A white-collar attorney who is in the middle of the Russia investigation said Trump surrogates don’t need to level attacks against Mueller, even if such an approach has often been favored in the past by the president’s New York-based personal attorney.
“Kasowitz loves this junkyard dog thing,” the attorney said. “My experience is that’s, more often than not, not a winning strategy.”
“There are circumstances where people behave in a way that’s sufficiently awful that you need to get out there and create a trench and really go for it,” the attorney added. “But those instances are rare and you need articulable facts that support it.”
Don Goldberg, who helped spearhead Clinton White House communications during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and congressional impeachment proceedings, said questioning Mueller over the staffers he’s appointed who donated to Democratic candidates “might be effective” for the Trump defense team. “It’s not an unreasonable narrative to start saying the team that has been put together is tainted,” he said.
But, he added, such a strategy could risk a backlash. “If you’re trying to affect the narrative, I think going after and attacking people of that stature who are not partisan people is really a mistake,” he said.
Several Republicans interviewed in recent days said they’re still struggling with where to land on attacking Mueller.
While Ruddy called the original special counsel appointment “flimsy stuff” without any legal basis, he said Trump would be asking for trouble if he heeded the calls from Coulter and others to fire the special counsel.
“It could trigger something well beyond anything they ever imagined. I think firing Mueller could trigger an impeachment process. It could be very dangerous. I don’t think it’d be very smart at all,” he said.
In an interview Monday, former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg said he still welcomed Mueller as the leader of the Russia probe.
"Robert Mueller’s record at the FBI is not problematic like James Comey’s, in my opinion. I disagree with recent comments made by others going on a jihad against Mueller," Nunberg said.
For now, Morris said “Comey represents a better enemy than Mueller.” But he also suggested that Mueller will become a ripe target as the investigation unfolds, allowing Trump’s defenders to paint the investigation as an either-or proposition.
“The strength of the special prosecutor is he’s a man with his staff with one mission to go get one man,” Morris said. “The weakness is if he doesn’t get that man he goes out of business and everyone gets unemployed and they lost that opportunity for a place in the limelight. The public can easily see this as a zero-sum game between Trump and Mueller.”
Tara Palmeri and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.