Following the FBI’s shocking raid Monday at the home, office, and hotel room of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, Republican lawmakers are rallying behind the still-unjustified investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. (Like just about everything else the probe has produced so far, the Cohen matter appears unrelated to anything Russian.)
Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will partner with Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to introduce legislation that would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller if Trump fires him. The bill would give Mueller a 10-day window to “seek expedited judicial review of a firing.”
GOP leaders offered their verbal support: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)—whose committee is investigating possible misconduct into how the Obama Justice Department obtained a FISA warrant to spy on the Trump campaign—said it would be “suicide for the president to want, to talk about firing Mueller.” Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) warned “the consequences of [firing Mueller] are some that not even the president can anticipate. And I think it would be a mistake.”
NeverTrumpers, who fantasize about Mueller hauling the president out of the White House in handcuffs, have formed yet another group to solidify congressional support for the special counsel. On Wednesday, “Republicans for the Rule of Law” aired an ad during “Fox and Friends”—Trump’s must-watch morning program—that touted Mueller’s credentials and urged viewers to call their representatives to demand they “protect the Mueller investigation.” (The ad conspicuously did not mention Trump-Russia election collusion, the crime Mueller was hired to investigate in May 2017.)
Republicans for the Rule of Law is led by Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard, and NeverTrump’s de facto leader. Kristol has the opposite of the political Midas Touch: Everything and everyone he promotes—from the Iraq War to Sarah Palin to Evan McMullin—are losers. So it’s unsurprising that Kristol’s latest effort again misses the mark.
While the new ad canonizes Mueller as a war hero and patriot, it overlooks Mueller’s mishandling both of his current investigation and of key FBI matters when he headed that agency:
The Anthrax Case: As Daniel Ashman writes for The Federalist, Mueller “has been botching investigations since the Anthrax attacks.” The month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, letters laced with anthrax killed five people, injured more than a dozen more, and panicked D.C. lawmakers and the public. (Kristol, who exploited every post-9/11 crisis to justify war, immediately called anthrax “the Iraq-favored biological agent” and suggested President Bush could use the attacks to act against other countries.)
Under the direction of then-FBI Director Mueller, the agency for years pursued the wrong man, Army scientist Steven Hatfill, for the crimes. Hatfill’s apartment was raided on live television (thanks to a tip by Mueller’s team), he was subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, and he lost his job. He filed a lawsuit in 2003 accusing “FBI agents and Justice Department officials involved in the criminal investigation of the anthrax mailings of leaking information about him to the news media in violation of the Privacy Act.” After Hatfill was exonerated in 2008, the Justice Department settled his lawsuit for nearly $6 million.
Congress was not happy with how Mueller conducted the probe. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) told the New York Times, “this case was botched from the very beginning. The FBI did a poor job of collecting evidence, and then inappropriately focused on one individual as a suspect for too long, developing an erroneous theory of the case that has led to this very expensive dead end.”
But Mueller continued to fumble the probe; it cost someone his life. Mueller accused another Army researcher, Bruce Ivins, of the attacks. Ivins committed suicide after learning he was the new suspect. Despite widespread doubt that the FBI finally had its man, the agency resisted an independent investigation by asking the National Academy of Sciences to review its proof. But that report didn’t go Mueller’s way, either. The NAS said the scientific evidence did not connect Ivins to the crime. No one was ever brought to justice and the most expensive investigation in FBI history, with Mueller at the helm, was a flop.
Sexual Misconduct and Harassment: In May 2015, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report on the handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the DOJ’s four law enforcement agencies between October 2008 and September 2012. Mueller ran the FBI during that time. The report slammed the FBI for its initial refusal to cooperate with the probe:
The OIG’s ability to conduct this review was significantly impacted and delayed by the repeated difficulties we had in obtaining relevant information from the FBI. Initially, the FBI refused to provide the OIG with unredacted information that was responsive to our requests. Therefore, we cannot be completely confident that the FBI provided us with all information relevant to this review.
Once the FBI finally began to cooperate, the information was heavily redacted and “prevented the OIG from understanding the nature and circumstances of the allegations.” The inspector general eventually discovered several cases that were not included in FBI’s preliminary trove.
Investigators discovered that the FBI would routinely categorize sexual misconduct or harassment accusations as a general infraction in violation of protocol. For example, an assistant chief responsible for training agents on child exploitation and human trafficking “engaged in multiple consensual and commercial sexual encounters over a 7-year period with foreign nationals, including prostitutes, strippers, students in his classes, and members of foreign law enforcement.” He was charged with unprofessional conduct instead of a sex-related offense. The inspector general also criticized the FBI for “instances where it failed to open investigations at headquarters into allegations of serious sexual misconduct and sexual harassment when called for by its criteria.”
After the OIG report was issued, Grassley issued a statement condemning the FBI’s failure to work with the inspector general: “The FBI is not above the law. It has an obligation to comply with the Inspector General Act. That means, FBI employees cannot legally be spending their time withholding and reviewing documents before providing them to the IG.” (James Comey had taken over the department by then.)
Trump-Russia Investigation: After a year of work, the Mueller team has not produced a single charge or conviction related to collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The case against his biggest target so far—ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn—appears to be in jeopardy. Shortly after taking over the case in December, Judge Emmet Sullivan requested exculpatory evidence from Mueller’s team; Flynn’s sentencing is now delayed until at least May.
Sullivan replaced Judge Rudy Contreras, who was recused from the case a few days after Flynn’s plea deal. Although the reason for the recusal remains unclear, Contreras also serves on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and reportedly approved the warrant to spy on Carter Page. Newly-released texts between FBI lead investigator Peter Strzok and his mistress, Lisa Page show the pair tried to connect with Contreras as the Trump-Russia collusion hoax got underway in July 2016.
And a forthcoming inspector general report on Andrew McCabe, fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, reportedly accuses the former deputy director of ordering agents to alter their notes about witness interviews. This might include Strzok’s interview with Flynn.
Andrew McCarthy has raised significant objections to several aspects of the Mueller probe, including his team of lawyers, his flouting of Justice Department rules (here and here), his failure to produce any evidence thus far of the Trump-Russia collusion crime, and his handling of the Manafort and Papadopoulos cases.
Lee Smith at The Tablet argues that Mueller’s focus on an obscure January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles proves his investigation is a ruse: “It’s not an investigation that the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is leading—rather, it’s a cover-up. Mueller’s job is to obscure the abuses of the U.S. surveillance apparatus that occurred under the Obama administration.”
There may be political and even legal reasons why Trump should not (yet) fire Robert Mueller. But the notion Mueller’s career is “unimpeachable,” as Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) insists, simply is not supported by either past or present behavior. If Mueller’s boosters want to convince the public this investigation is legitimate, they should do it on the merits of the case and realistic portrayal of the man leading it, rather than hold him up as untouchable.
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