The Mueller Investigation Turns One

It’s hard to remember, but when deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein one year ago Thursday created the office of the special counsel there was a near-universal sense that Rosenstein’s selection to head the probe, Robert Mueller, was the right man for the job. Jason Chaffetz, then the Republican chairman of the House Oversight committee who spent the last years of the Obama administration pushing investigations into the White House and Hillary Clinton, called Mueller a “great selection” and a man with “impeccable credentials.”

“I think he’ll be broadly supported,” Chaffetz said of Mueller on the Today show on May 18, 2017. “It couldn’t be a better choice. He’s at the latter part of his career, he has nothing to prove. I think he’ll do a fabulous job.” Chaffetz went on to question the prudence of creating a special counsel to investigate Russian interference, and possible Trump campaign involvement, in the 2016 election, noting the lack of evidence of collusion. But the Utah Republican reiterated that Mueller would “do a great job.”

Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill both expressed confidence, underpinned with a sense of relief, at the Mueller appointment. House speaker Paul Ryan “welcomed” Mueller’s new role at the Justice Department. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer called Rosenstein’s decision the “right thing.” The unspoken hope was that an investigation that had become politicized and out of control would now be dealt with properly by a professional with a sense of higher duty.

Even President Trump was conciliatory on May 17, 2017, the day Mueller was tapped. “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know—there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” the president said in a statement. The possibility that Mueller would lead such an investigation and could even exonerate Team Trump was widespread at the time.

But some things have changed in a year. Chaffetz is no longer a congressman, having resigned his seat to become a paid contributor at Fox News, where he offers reliably pro-Trump commentary. By December 2017, he was sharing articles like this one, expressing a view that Mueller had a “credibility problem.” Reached by phone this week, Chaffetz said he’s “not here to impugn or disparage Robert Mueller’s character” but insists the former FBI director’s special counsel investigation is “so far off-track” and plagued by personnel problems, like the hiring of mostly Democratic prosecutors.

“It taints the credibility of whatever they come up with,” he said. Furthermore, Chaffetz added, “I don’t see any evidence that we shouldn’t have even started this.” He places the blame on Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. “We have an attorney general in name only,” Chaffetz said.

All of that just about sums up the position of Trump allies one year into the Mueller investigation: The special counsel’s office has no credibility, the investigation has gone far afield of its original mandate, and there’s been no evidence to show any collusion—though only a few of Chaffetz’s former colleagues in the House have been willing to say Trump should shut down the special counsel.

The indictments of former top campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates (the latter of whom has since rendered a guilty plea), and the guilty pleas from former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Mike Flynn are proof not of the necessity of the special counsel but of the corrupting political influence on Mueller and the FBI agents who began the probe. The revelation of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort meeting with a Russian lawyer claiming to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton does not factor in to whether there is a case for Mueller to continue investigating. The discovery that one of Mueller’s top FBI investigators had, during the 2016 election, exchanged anti-Trump text messages with a lover and fellow FBI employee, however, became grounds for Trump defenders to call the entire investigation bogus. Never mind that Mueller removed that agent from his team not long after being named special counsel.

It’s true that there’s been no evidence presented showing Team Trump collusion—but that’s because there’s been practically no evidence presented, period. Mueller has predictably run a tight ship, with leaks rare to nonexistent. In the short term, it’s given Trump defenders and opponents alike the chance to point to every development as proof of their preconceived notions. But if and until a public report from Mueller comes out, it’s impossible to know the full extent of what is known. A year after Mueller began his probe, however, Trump allies are acting as if whatever is revealed will damage the president.

One person has been consistent for a whole year about Mueller’s investigation: President Trump himself. After issuing that tame statement on May 17, Trump took to Twitter the next morning to call it “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history”—a term he’s been using more or less ever since.

Mark It Down—From CNN: “Giuliani: Mueller’s team told Trump’s lawyers they can’t indict a president”

Ten months after Donald Trump Jr. landed in hot water over reports he had met in 2016 with a Russian lawyer in hopes of getting “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, the Senate Judiciary Committee has finally released the transcripts of the closed-door interviews they conducted with Trump and others involved with the Trump Tower meeting. The transcripts paint a clear picture both of the Trump team’s eagerness to obtain information harmful to their opponent and their disappointment when the lawyer turned out to have dangled that information only as a pretext to discuss an issue of interest to the Russian government. CNN reports:

Rob Goldstone, the British music publicist who arranged the Trump Tower meeting, told the committee he was anticipating a “smoking gun” from Veselnitskaya when he urged Trump Jr. to take the meeting, even though he thought it was a “bad idea and that we shouldn’t do it.”…

Trump Jr. — who had emailed Goldstone ahead of the meeting about the dirt, “if it’s what you say I love it” — told congressional investigators he was interested in “listening to information” about Clinton in the June Trump Tower meeting. “I had no way of assessing where it came from, but I was willing to listen,” he said…

Trump’s team was not pleased, according to testimony about the session. “Jared Kushner, who is sitting next to me, appeared somewhat agitated by this and said, ‘I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Could you please focus a bit more and maybe just start again?'” Goldstone said of Kushner, who was not interviewed by the committee. “And I recall that she began the presentation exactly where she had begun it last time, almost word for word, which seemed, by his body language, to infuriate him even more.”

One More Thing—From Politico: “Trump team ready to ‘pressure’ Mueller at probe’s one-year mark”

Administration officials meet Thursday with the top Chinese trade representative in Washington in an effort to avoid a potential trade war with Beijing. Bloomberg reported Wednesday afternoon that President Trump’s top trade adviser in the White House, Peter Navarro, would not be participating in those discussions after concerns about his behavior during an official trip in China last month. Jonathan Swan of Axios later reported that Navarro had recently had a tense argument with Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin on that trip.

But a White House official says Navarro is participating in Thursday’s meeting. “Senior officials who will be participating include NEC Chair Larry Kudlow and trade advisers Peter Navarro and Everett Eissenstat,” said the official.

Navarro, whose restrictionist views on trade and China align more with President Trump than with most of the rest of Trump’s economic advisers, has a history of clashing with White House officials who disagree with him.

Must-Read of the Day—Ronan Farrow writes at the New Yorker:

Last week, several news outlets obtained financial records showing that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney, had used a shell company to receive payments from various firms with business before the Trump Administration. In the days since, there has been much speculation about who leaked the confidential documents, and the Treasury Department’s inspector general has launched a probe to find the source. That source, a law-enforcement official, is speaking publicly for the first time, to The New Yorker, to explain the motivation: the official had grown alarmed after being unable to find two important reports on Cohen’s financial activity in a government database. The official, worried that the information was being withheld from law enforcement, released the remaining documents.

NAFTA Watch—It doesn’t look like the administration plans to have a renegotiated NAFTA deal done soon enough for when congressional leaders say they need it to approve it by the end of the year. The May 17 deadline, announced last week by House speaker Paul Ryan, is governed by the Trade Promotion Authority law that requires the executive branch to give notice for new trade treaties and to provide the text within 30 days of that notice. Ryan’s office cited calendar and scheduling concerns in delivering the Thursday deadline, although trade experts say the administration could have a few more days of wiggle room.

The White House referred questions about the ongoing NAFTA negotiations with Canada and Mexico and the May 17 deadline to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The only comment from the USTR was a direction to a previous statement. “The United States is ready to continue working with Mexico and Canada to achieve needed breakthroughs on these objectives,” the statement read in part. “Our teams will continue to be fully engaged.”

Embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has so far managed to keep his job despite months of bad press springing from multiple alleged ethics violations. Senate Democrats made sure Pruitt heard their displeasure with this during a Wednesday hearing.

“You’re trailing a string of ethical lapses and controversies. They’re an embarrassment to the agency, an embarrassment to Republicans and Democrats alike,” Sen. Pat Leahy scolded Pruitt. “Forget about your own ego and your first-class travel and your special phone booths and all these things that just make you a laughingstock and your agency a laughingstock.”

Pruitt, a key Trump ally who has been instrumental to the president’s program of economic deregulation, has racked up an almost comical tally of ethics scandals, including taking first-class flights around the country on the taxpayer dime, granting unapproved raises to favored EPA aides, and an unorthodox renting situation surrounding a condo owned by an energy lobbyist’s wife. Meanwhile, new concerns have continued to bubble up: Just this week, Politico reported that Pruitt and the White House had sought to bury a federal health study about nationwide water contamination out of concerns for a “public relations nightmare.”

Pruitt pushed back against some of the criticism Wednesday, although he admitted that he wished he had done some things differently. “I share your concerns about some of these decisions. I want to rectify them going forward,” Pruitt said. “I also want to highlight for you that some of the criticism is unfounded and I think is exaggerated and I think it feeds this division that we’ve seen around some very important issues affecting the environment.”

Song of the Day—“James River Blues” by Old Crow Medicine Show

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