The special counsel investigation into Trump campaign links to Russia seems to be drilling closer and closer to the president himself. Three former Trump campaign advisers pleaded guilty and are cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is also reportedly digging into the Trump Organization’s finances, an investigative thread Trump once characterized as a red line, “a violation."
But as the investigation intensifies, so does President Trump’s best — and some say his only — defense, short of firing Mueller: to discredit the probe itself and Mueller personally to convince his base that the findings don’t matter. And the closer it gets to the November midterms, the more critical that becomes for Trump.
“He probably doesn’t want the results coming out during the midterm campaign, but he probably doesn’t want it coming out after, if the Democrats take the House, either,” said Ron Oleynik, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and expert in foreign lobbying regulation.
But no matter what Mueller finds, Trump knows the endgame is a political one. “The question is when the [results] come out, has the White House prepared the 35 percent or so of the voting population that seem to be strongly behind the president, have they prepared that piece of the electorate to say, ‘Well, yeah, the president has been saying all along this is a witch hunt and it’s not really legal’," Oleynik said.
That’s not to say Trump’s legal fight is over. To the contrary, John Dowd, the president’s lead counsel, reportedly floated the idea of pardons to former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is under indictment, and Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty. Dowd resigned suddenly earlier this month.
Trump’s campaign against Mueller and the “deep state” is intensifying after months of disparaging career officials at the FBI and the Justice Department for failing to investigate Hillary Clinton and for supposedly showing anti-Trump bias. In December Trump said the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters — worst in History!”
“He’s going to war over this”
He’s called the probe a “witch hunt” on Twitter 24 times in the past year, but in March he started calling out Mueller personally for the first time and asked how it’s fair that Mueller’s team has “13 hardened Democrats.” In the words of Trump’s former strategist and ex-Breitbart News boss Steve Bannon, “He’s going to war over this.”
Right-wing media kicked into high gear by running stories attacking Mueller’s credibility. The Drudge Report recirculated a report from TheFederalist.com about Mueller botching the FBI’s anthrax investigation in 2001 when he headed the bureau. Breitbart published a story about photojournalist Matt Schrier, who says he was “betrayed” by Mueller’s FBI when he was held hostage by al-Qaida in 2012. Sean Hannity ran a story about Mueller’s “massive conflicts of interest,” citing Democrats on Mueller’s team. (Hannity and guests on his show have questioned Mueller’s legitimacy or called for Mueller to step down or be fired at least 79 times since Mueller was appointed, a December 2017 study found.)
Trump’s taunts haven’t deterred Mueller, who continues to interview witnesses and bring charges. Three former Trump campaign advisers have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI: Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, and Michael Flynn. Former campaign manager Paul Manafort faces up to 300 years in prison on money laundering, bank fraud, and tax evasion charges.
Fighting a special counsel in the court of public opinion is nothing new. President Richard Nixon attacked the Watergate probe almost daily; President Bill Clinton’s lawyers dubbed independent counsel Ken Starr’s probe a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” in 1995 — a predecessor to today’s “deep state.”
Lanny Davis, a D.C. attorney specializing in crisis management who served as special counsel to Clinton, predicts Trump’s strategy will backfire, mostly because Robert Mueller is no Ken Starr.
“We attacked Ken Starr because he was an overzealous prosecutor”
“Muller is the 21st century version of Eliot Ness,” Davis said. “Attacking him is a boomerang. Even the most partisan among us would not have been stupid enough to attack Bob Mueller, who is beyond reproach. We attacked Ken Starr because he was an overzealous prosecutor subpoenaing a mother to talk about her daughter’s sex life.”
Road to impeachment
The Mueller investigation is unlikely to result in an indictment of the president, although some legal experts say it’s a possibility. The more likely outcome is that Congress, starting with the House, will have to decide if Mueller’s findings warrant impeachment. If a majority of members of the House of Representatives vote yes, then the will Senate decide, after a trial, whether to remove the president from office, requiring 67 votes. If Trump can convince enough of his base and Republicans in Congress that the investigation is illegitimate, he will survive the findings, no matter what they are.
“This guy who has such an iron hold on 35 percent of the country,” said Paul Begala, counsel to President Bill Clinton during his term. “He only needs 34 senators to avoid removal.”
Trump’s erratic comments about the investigation — and the occasional rogue witness — keep headlines full of 2016 election news and add to a potential obstruction of justice case against the president. In May 2017, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation. In June 2016, Trump ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire Mueller, the New York Times reported. For months, Trump publicly berated Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, then fired him. And he has asked former chief of staff Reince Priebus and another aide about the contents of their conversations with Mueller.
Begala, who defended Clinton in the media during the investigation into his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, has one piece of advice for Trump: Shut up.
“We looked back at Watergate, and Nixon talked about it every day”
“One of the most important things we did with Clinton is he decided to shut the hell up about the scandal,” Begala said. “We looked back at Watergate, and Nixon talked about it every day. Clinton had the ability to compartmentalize. That made him more forgivable. People had a sense that he was in there fighting for them every day. If people get the sense Trump is defending himself instead of fighting for them, that’s problematic.”
How to survive
While the circumstances differ between Clinton’s attempt to discredit Starr and Trump’s campaign against Mueller, the goal's the same: Get the focus off the allegations and onto those doing the alleging. The crucial difference between the Clinton and Trump investigations, Begala notes, is that Clinton didn’t have the power to fire Starr, who was appointed by judges, while Trump does have the power to fire Mueller, although his lawyers insist that won't be happening.
Clinton survived impeachment, with only 50 senators voting to remove him. Nixon resigned before the Senate trial. But John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, thinks he could have survived the investigation in today’s political climate.
“There’s social media, there’s the internet; the news cycles are faster,” Dean told Politico earlier this year. “There’s more likelihood he might have survived if there’d been a Fox News,” he added.
Polls show Mueller’s reputation is surviving the tough talk, so far. Six in 10 Americans see the investigation as a serious matter that should be fully investigated, a CNN poll from March 22-25 found. But among Republicans, far fewer feel this way; just 19 percent said it was a serious matter that should be fully investigated, compared to 92 percent of Democrats. Mueller’s unfavorable rating among Republicans hit a peak of 43 percent in the days surrounding the Trump tweets about Mueller, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll.
Still, Davis thinks Trump’s attacks on the investigation only make him look more guilty.
“The only advice I would have is: Tell the truth,” Davis said. “Sooner or later, lying isn’t going to work for you. If you lie to the American people, you will lose your support and be impeached and removed from office. It happened to Richard Nixon.”
Alex Thompson contributed reporting.
Cover photo illustration: Leslie Xia
CORRECTION April 2, 2018, 9:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified the person at the center of an interview between Lester Holt and President Donald Trump in May 2017. President Trump told Holt he fired former FBI director James Comey because of the Russia investigation, not former national security advisor Michael Flynn.