This is how an effort to undermine Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation could unfold.
There is a conservative effort underway to undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz, a conservative political scientist with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who served on the foreign policy advisory team to former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, lays out the framework: Mueller and ousted FBI Director James Comey, both appointed under Republican presidents, overreach their bounds as investigators.
And this overreach, Berkowitz writes, unfairly targets Republican subjects:
One crucial difference distinguishes the probe of Mrs. Clinton from the two Comey-instigated special-counsel investigations of Republican administrations. Mr. Fitzgerald’s multiyear investigation of the Bush administration and Mr. Mueller’s ever-widening scrutiny of the Trump campaign exhibit a tenacious and nearly unconstrained search for persons and crimes to prosecute. In contrast, Mr. Comey’s investigation of Mrs. Clinton reflects a determination not to prosecute systematic and obvious unlawful conduct.
Both excesses threaten the rule of law—but the dogged search for persons and crimes to prosecute poses the graver threat to constitutional government.
In other words, Berkowitz is asserting that the Russia allegations against Trump are part of some kind of outsized hunt, without a clear crime or criminals — whereas Comey ended the investigation into Clinton’s emails, which had decisive unlawful behavior (the use of a personal email servers for official governmental business).
Berkowitz’s argument focuses on the scope of the FBI’s probe, pointing out that it goes far beyond the issue at question — any possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors:
The special counsel’s team has reached back more than a decade into Mr. Manafort’s financial affairs and conducted a predawn, guns-drawn raid on his home on a day he was scheduled to testify before Congress as a cooperating witness.
Monday morning saw two major indictments in Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s affiliates, targeting the president’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, who also worked for the Trump campaign, for alleged money laundering, failure to disclose their financial assets, and false statements regarding their work for the government of Ukraine and a Ukrainian political party dating back to 2006. The charges all predated Manafort’s work on the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s team also unclassified a guilty plea from a former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos for making false statements during an interview with the FBI directly related to the Russia election interference probe.
Both developments in the investigation are a clear indication that there will be more to come, and that Mueller investigation, which has substantially expanded since his appointment in May, is only beginning.
Berkowitz’s line of scrutiny, published before the indictments, is similar to Trump’s own official response to the Manafort charges Monday morning, tweeting “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”
Trump-friendly media outlets are also spinning Mueller as not to be trusted. Breitbart News, the far-right outlet run by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, first ran the Manafort indictment news with a headline calling Mueller’s team “leaky” — a clear implication that the investigation was trying to curry media attention.
Comey got a similar treatment after his damning testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Republicans labeled him as partisan and not be trusted, and said his account vindicated Trump.
When Mueller was brought on to the investigation, congressional Republicans welcomed the special counsel, using the appointment as an excuse to push off questions about damning reports on the Trump campaign’s alleged involvement with foreign actors.
Now as the investigation is turning to actual tangible action, eyes will be on top Republican pundits and leaders: Will they undermine Mueller’s investigations and label the effort as a partisan witch hunt to stay loyal to Trump? Berkowitz’s op-ed surely foreshadows how that could unfold.