The fate of Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, is shaping up to be the next big political battleground. On Friday, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier told a California radio station that she heard rumors that President Donald Trump was planning to fire Mueller. Trump’s political allies at Fox News have been urging him on this course. “The only thing that remains is whether we have the fortitude to not just fire these people immediately, but to take them out in cuffs,” Jeanine Pirro, whose show Trump watches and whom he has invited to the White House, said on Saturday. The next day, former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted:
The president rejected the idea that he was planning to fire Mueller, telling reporters on Sunday, “No, I’m not.” Yet in the same exchange with reporters, he expressed dismay that Mueller’s investigation had acquired thousands of emails from the presidential transition team, which a Trump lawyer alleges were “unlawfully produced.” “Not looking good, it’s not looking good,” the president said. “It’s quite sad to see that, my people were very upset about it.”
Firing Mueller would created a legitimacy crisis, which is why liberals groups like Move On are justified in taking Holder’s “RED LINE” comment to heart by organizing protests in the event that Mueller is kicked out. Still, Trump’s comments, as well as the behavior of his legal team and his allies in the media, point to a path that Trump could pursue that is equally dangerous and more likely to be successful. Firing Mueller outright risks a backlash. The shrewder strategy would be to delegitimize and sabotage him instead.
As Mike Allen noted in Axios, “the Trump lawyers’ strategy is to cooperate with Mueller on the inside game. The outside chorus tries to rough up Mueller, in case his findings are trouble for POTUS.” That chorus has also obsessed over two FBI agents, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were removed from the investigation over anti-Trump text messages. “Is the FBI part of the resistance?” Fox News host Jesse Watters asked on Sunday. “It’s like the FBI had Michael Moore investigating the president of the United States.”
The propaganda campaign being carried out by Pirro and her ilk doesn’t have to culminate in Mueller being kicked out. It will be just as successful if it convinces the Republican base that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt. In that eventuality, Republican lawmakers would have perfect cover for not holding Trump accountable, for casting doubt on Mueller’s finding, for shutting down their own investigation, and for opposing any impeachment move.
It’s a telling sign that the Trump lawyer, Kory Langhofer, wrote a public complaint about Mueller’s acquisition of transition emails, in the form of a letter to the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Saturday. The Washington Post described this as “a legal and public relations maneuver seen as possibly laying the groundwork to oust the special counsel.” As a legal maneuver, the complaint has dubious value. The proper venue for redress is the courts, not a public rebuke addressed to Congress. But the public relations value of the maneuver is undeniable: The goal is to create reasonable doubt among Republicans, so that they will dismiss any news that springs from the emails as contaminated evidence.
If the strategy is to muddy the waters, there are signs it’s working. In muted form, more moderate Republicans are already echoing the Fox line that the investigation is tainted. On ABC’s This Week, Texas Senator John Cornyn expressed support for Mueller but hedged his comments by saying that the special counsel should be mindful of not having politically biased agents working on the case: “I just think that he would be concerned about the appearance of conflicts of interest that would undermine the integrity of the investigation,” said Cornyn, who tweeted on Saturday:
The other way Trump could sabotage Mueller’s investigation is by going after Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself.
As The Washington Post reported on Sunday, the president is pondering shifting Sessions and Rosenstein from their current positions:
Rather, Trump appeared to be contemplating changes in the Justice Department’s leadership. In recent discussions, two advisers said, Trump has called the attorney general “weak,” and complained that Rosenstein has shown insufficient accountability on the special counsel’s work. A senior official said Trump mocked Rosenstein’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, saying he looked weak and unable to answer questions. Trump has ranted about Rosenstein as “a Democrat,” one of these advisers said, and characterized him as a threat to his presidency.
Leaving aside the fact that Rosenstein is in fact a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, Trump’s desire to fire or reassign him and Sessions is directly tied with the goal of hamstringing the Mueller investigation.
As former FBI agent Asha Rangappa tweeted:
Embattled as Trump is, he clearly has a path forward to stave off the political damage that Mueller’s investigation can inflict, while avoiding the firestorm of firing him. The president can deploy his media allies at Fox to smear the investigation, using that partisan anger to cow Republicans in Congress. Protected by the fortress of partisanship, he can then fire Rosenstein and appoint someone to rein in Mueller.
Of course, Trump is so impetuous and reckless he could fire Mueller in any case. But Trump’s opponents should realize that firing Mueller isn’t the only “RED LINE” to worry about. Trump and his allies have already created a legitimacy crisis. Dumping Mueller would only be the final step in a much larger effort to obstruct justice.