Mueller's Probe In Peril
Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump administration is in peril. It’s recently come to light that a few members of his team could be biased by, if not completely beholden to, party politics. That fact that this is so can’t be understated; it’s an earthquake of an exposé. So far, the investigation has needed little help in making waves. Since the middle of last May, when first it was given the green light and a broad purview, it’s done nothing but stir of the pot. And, as a pot needs its chef, and a chef his tool, Mueller holds the key. This, he wields with the long arm of the law and strikes with carte blanche.
For months, the investigation seemed to be gaining steam at a dizzying and unyielding pace. In late October, just shy of two months to this very day, the investigation claimed its first victims in Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos. Brought before the court and indicted on a bevy of crimes, Manafort and Gates wouldn’t go away without a fight. They pleaded not guilty and, at the time of this writing, await trial this spring. Papadopoulos, on the other hand, had other plans in mind. He sought to preserve, if not exculpate himself by entering a plea deal. Those in the know think that by doing this, he’ll be a bit more forthcoming when it comes to answering Mueller’s questions. And who could blame him? The threat of decade in jail is enough to move most to squeal.
This curious trio then added Michael Flynn to its number. Flynn, the former head of the National Security Agency, was found to be profiting handsomely but treasonously from his work abroad. He was dining with Vladimir Putin in Russia, dancing like a puppet for Recep Erdogan in Turkey, and lying about it all to the FBI back home. His deceit is what did him in. During President Trump’s transition to the White House, General Flynn held conversations with Russian officials about sanctions, concealed the fact that he did so, and was forced to resign for his unscrupulousness. Like Papadopoulos, and likely for similar reason, Flynn opted for a plea deal. The victims, as such, are split in half: for Manafort and Gates, the game-plan is intransigence; for Papadopoulos and Flynn—lenience.
Next up on Mueller’s list is anyone’s guess. (For what it’s worth, my money is on Jared Kushner—Trump’s son-in-law and Swiss-army-knife chargé d'affaires; he’s too quiet and squeaky clean. The best culprit, after all, is he who we suspect least. He’s also the only high-level cabinet member to have held positions in the campaign and the presidency). The trend is unpropitious, though, if I’m President Trump. Mueller has been picking off one-by-one the officials closest to his inner circle. In doing so, he’s made a probe that is swift, severe, and systematic. It’s cutthroat, incisive, and unapologetic, and those who have something to hide had better be on edge.
At least, they might’ve been—until now. With the release of this bombshell report, everything’s changed. No longer are Trump and his confidants waiting on bated breath, counting on time and evidence to set them free. No, instead they’re breathing a collective sigh of relief. But just as they empty their lungs, in an exhale long-overdue, they’re refilling and refueling for counter attacks against Mueller and what seems to be a corrupted probe.
In the report, we learned two important things—one extraordinary, the other less so.
Beginning with the second, and doubling back to the first, we learned that three of Mueller’s chief investigators have a history with the Democratic Party. This alone doesn’t demand an injunction or that the investigation be enjoined or stopped. Nor would it be wise to dismiss everything the investigation has thus far unveiled, or count it as being less credible. It doesn’t spoil the indictments or sour the intel. What it does do, though, is stir suspicions and raise eyebrows.
The three donated repeatedly, and quite substantially to Democratic campaigns. At an average of $5,000 a pop, these endowments taken as a whole were no small sum. In the scheme of things, they look less like apolitical largesse and more like party fealty. This has led Republicans to think that the investigation has been biased from the Left, root and branch.
Strengthening this thought is the fact that Andrew Weissmann, the man second only to Robert Mueller in the investigation’s hierarchy, attended a post-election party for Hillary Clinton. This was after she defeated Bernie Sanders and was readying herself for Donald Trump. The only people in attendance at such parties, so the thinking goes, are those who had a hand in the victory, or those hoping to profit in the victor’s glow. Republicans think that to the latter group, Weissmann belongs.
In addition to the suspicious largesse and the election-night festivities, there’s another factor. This one might be the most insidious of them all. It involves Peter Strzok, a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence officer. It’s just now come to light that he was quietly removed from the probe in the late summer. Why would an integral, experienced man find himself on the outside looking in to the decade’s most consequential probe? He was found to be exchanging “anti-Trump” texts with an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair. Before getting worked up about this, I’d challenge you to find anyone in America who hasn’t sent an “anti-Trump” text in the course of a year. I’ll wait. Even Rex Tillerson called his boss a “f***ing moron”, so it’s no standard to hold a man accountable to.
The scary thing about Strzok, though, is his uncanny ability to manipulate strings. It was he who modified—though perhaps it’s more precise to say, mollified—James Comey’s statement about Hillary Clinton. You’ll recall that when he made his decision about what was to be done with the former Secretary of State, in the wake of the e-mail fiasco, Comey changed his tune at the last minute. In his famous dictum, instead of calling Clinton “grossly negligent”, as he intended to do, he called her “extremely careless”. The first—gross negligence—is punishable in a court of law; the second—carelessness—is completely pardonable. Thus, in Comey’s opinion, and for all intents and purposes, Clinton was free.
Come to find out, though, it was Strzok who advised Comey to change his wording. At Strzok’s behest, negligence softened to carelessness, Comey recommended no charges, and Clinton competed uninterrupted (until early November, of course). So, we knew that Strzok worked in the shadows as an FBI agent, but none knew to what degree. No one could’ve guessed how much influence he wielded from behind the scenes. No one knew of his clandestine clout. It’s this that makes all the more worrying a text he sent, in which he said he wanted an “insurance policy” in case Donald Trump became president. Is he, the top henchman in the Mueller probe, simply cashing out on the insurance?
Republicans think so. At first they clamored that the investigation was a “witch hunt”, but they did so without much to back the claim. It was something they said more as a desperate defense of a besieged president than anything else. They were trying to preempt what might’ve become, and what might still become, a damning and crippling revelation about Trump. They were manufacturing doubt about Mueller’s apolitical credentials, but having nothing substantial to support the claim. Now, they’ve been given all the support they need.
Even those who’d rather see President Trump deposed must admit that things stand on shaky ground. The investigation is faltering. Its legitimacy is open to attack. And now, more than ever, it’s being justifiably impugned.
It’s unclear how or if Mueller can reshape the perception of his work. Strzok was relieved of his duty and shuffled over to Human Resources, but the damage is done. With him gone, the calls for an enjoinder remain. Pundits are calling upon the president to fire Special Counselor Mueller—an action well within his right. While this was considered nothing short of political suicide mere months ago, it now seems justifiable. Dangerous, yes, but defensible. Trump has never had a better reason to rid himself of his Becket and free himself of the Trump-Russia burden.
But this, he won’t do. The ball is in his court and it’s his turn to press. The doubt surrounding Mueller plays into his hand. Any result the Counselor’s team comes to will look like party politics. Any charge will look like a coup. Trump can contest and accost any of Mueller’s decisions without seeming to undermine justice. The advantage is his. It can be said that everything’s grounded in a biased investigation’s animus toward Trump, and this, unlike at any other time, won’t sound like moonshine or conspiracy. Mueller’s ironclad credentials have cracked. The Republican hobbyhorse whinnies with life. The investigation is all but lost.