Anti-Mueller Campaign: Building Wall Against Future Impeachment Push?

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

A coordinated operation is underway between the White House and Republican members of Congress to undermine Special Counsel Robert A. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, just as the inquiry begins to zero in on President Trump and his closest advisers.

Their joint campaign is clear in the clamor over anti-Trump messages between two former members of Mueller’s investigative team and a recent new complaint over Mueller’s acquisition of emails from the Trump transition team.

The purpose is less to support a possible Trump effort to fire Mueller—that would only add to any obstruction of justice charge—but rather to weaken the evidence from the Special Counsel’s investigation, should it be forwarded to Congress as part of an impeachment package.

On Dec. 12, Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs at Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, gave some news media unusual access to about 375 private text messages exchanged over a 15-month period during the 2016 presidential campaign between two FBI officials, Special Agent Peter Strzok and attorney Lisa Page.

Some of their text messages indiscreetly bashed Trump and other political figures while some of the others appeared to favor Hillary Clinton. Strzok had been part of the FBI team investigating Clinton emails and a leading investigator in Mueller’s early inquiries into Russian election interference. Page, a lawyer, briefly helped Mueller’s team early this year.

On the same evening as the Justice Department access to reporters, some of the exchanges appeared on Fox News and in stories published by Breitbart, Politico and The Washington Examiner.

The next day, the texts became the main vehicle for many Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee to attack the credibility of Mueller and his staff as they questioned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Several GOP members questioned whether the messages showed widespread political bias against Trump among members of Mueller’s team.

“We recognize we have employees with political opinions,” Rosenstein responded to one such question. “And it’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions.”

One Republican member of the panel, Representative Steve King of Iowa, went as far as to raise the question that, if Strzok “has his hands in this many things,” could it bring into play “the fruit of the poisonous tree?” That’s a broad reference to the legal notion that evidence becomes tainted and unusable if obtained illegally. In this case, he was implying that, if Strzok was biased, that could affect the usability of evidence he gathered during his interrogations or collection of information.

“Typically, our cases would be prosecuted based upon witnesses and documents, not upon the agent, unless the agent, personally, were a witness in the case,” Rosenstein said. “But that would certainly concern us, if there were any tainted evidence in the case.”

Asked later if he had heard that Strzok or any other special agent had conducted an illegal search or seizure, Rosenstein replied, “No.”

On Dec. 14, Trump picked up on the example of the Strzok-Page texts, telling reporters: “It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI, but it is very sad when you look at those documents [the text messages], and how they’ve done that is really, really disgraceful. And you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it.”

The Strzok-Page exchanges actually were an old story, although now actually quotable, thanks to their being made available by Justice to reporters and TV producers. Back on Dec. 7, Breitbart and Fox News first reported their existence and the fact that they had first been obtained in July by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz as part of his inquiry into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails. When Mueller first learned of the Strzok-Page messages four months ago, he immediately transferred Strzok out his investigative team, and there was no public stir.

So why a ruckus now?

It seems House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican whose pro-White House actions lost him the leadership of that panel’s Russia inquiry earlier this year, sought the texts after an informant reported that “documentary evidence” existed about Strzok obstructing Nunes’ own probe. Nunes had been looking into the dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele that contained allegations of Trump links to Russia.

Inspector General Horowitz agreed that when he finished with the texts in his own inquiry, they could be released to congressional committees. But the Justice Department was to check if that release “met applicable ethical and legal standards, before providing them to Congress,” according to a letter Horowitz wrote last Friday in answer to questions from Democratic House members.

“The Department did not consult with OIG [Office of the Inspector General]” before providing them to Congress,” Horowitz wrote. Nor did they “consult with the OIG before sharing the text messages with the press.”

Justice spokesperson Flores tweeted Friday that she released the texts after consultation with “senior career ethics advisors.” Those advisors, she wrote, “determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns, including under the Privacy Act, that prohibited the release of the information to the public, either by members of Congress or by the Department.” It would be interesting to know who made such a determination.

This weekend, a new anti-Mueller front opened.

Kory Langhofer, an Arizona attorney representing Trump for America, the president’s transition team, tried to undermine the Mueller probe’s credibility by claiming that the FBI investigators in August improperly obtained thousands of transition emails from career employees of the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government organization holding legal possession of the materials.

Mueller’s office, through its spokesman Peter Carr, said, “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The material originally was turned over to GSA when its chief legal advisor and general counsel was Richard W. Beckler, a Trump appointee who joined the administration last May. Since 2011, he had been with Bracewell & Giuliani, the firm associated with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Langhofer’s letter alleged GSA “unlawfully produced” private materials, including privileged communications that Mueller then used as part of his Russia investigation. Ironically, it was Langhofer who back in June circulated a memo to transition officials that instructed them to save any records related to “several pending investigations into potential attempts by Russian interests to influence the 2016 election.”

Instead of going to federal court for an order to prevent Mueller’s continued use of the emails until he or transition lawyers could review the materials, Langhofer instead sent his letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as well as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Asked his view of Mueller’s acquisition of the transition emails as he returned Sunday from Camp David, Trump said, “Not looking good. It’s not looking good. It’s quite sad to see that. My people were very upset to see that. A lot of lawyers thought that was pretty sad.”

On the other hand, a spokeswoman for Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Sunday the issues raised by Langhofer were “specific legal issues” regarding claims of privileged information and that those matters belonged in court, not Congress.

Consider the GSA matter a bit of kindling on a fire being built under the Mueller investigation.

The real fuel comes from Trump tweets and statements and recent attacks on the FBI, Mueller’s staff, and Mueller himself by Republicans in House and Senate hearings. They recall similar efforts in the past that damaged former FBI Director James Comey and, before that, questioned the intelligence community’s unanimous finding that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian interference with the presidential election.

It’s clear that the goal of these activities –and there will be more—is to give pro-Trump members of the House Judiciary Committee material to fight a possible impeachment effort in the coming year.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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4 Replies to “Anti-Mueller Campaign: Building Wall Against Future Impeachment Push?”
  1. Walter,

    Like many others, you are getting worried that the great hope of Russian collusion to bring down Trump is slipping away. This is not some great coordinated campaign between the White House and Congress…we know they are incapable of doing that. The hard truth for you is that Muller has found zero evidence of collusion from Trump or his campaign. However, there IS evidence here of collusion between our government and the Hillary campaign that continues today. Together they coordinated a phony dossier paid for by the Hillary campaign through her lawyers so it be protected by attorney client privilege. The collusion continues with the contractor for this dossier being Fusion GPS who happened to hire a consultant at the time of the campaign who is married to the #2 person at DOJ under Obama. Oh, and she happens to be a Russian expert. There’s a super coincidence that a political consulting firm would hire someone with no political experience, but only Russian experience, in the spring of 2016.

    And yes, we also now know there is Peter Strzok actually watering down the language in Comey’s famous exoneration of Hillary speech. We know through many texts to his lover that he is very pro Hillary. Why does he still have a clearance and working at FBI? His extramarital affair is reason to debrief him? No one is asking that question

    I think you need to look at the additional and total facts here on this 2016 campaign to see the coordinated attempt by the Democrats to delegitimize this President.

    The only coordinated approach here is that the Clinton’s are using their friends in our government to do their bidding

    1. …it is absolutely bewildering and inexplainable how so many individuals could be dissconnected from reason due personal world-views: regardless the sacrifices and honorable service made by those who have committed themselves to an oath of allegiance above and beyond political affiliation. Yes, the same Rights which protect an individual’s actions to dissent or even if they choose…to dishonor our flag…these same protections too may privilege those who could continue to defend current elected officials in the Legislature or Executive branch despite the open and obvious elements. That clear however, does not change our ability to distinguish between right and wrong; ethics & doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do; and situational markers or factors resulted in no less than what is summed up “clear and present danger”. In a cultural milieu of information and opportunity for disinformation…a spade remains a spade. No amount of ideological perversions, politics, or corruptions due individual motivators can change the reality that the rest of us (e.g. the people) are dependent on the continued services of the honorable men and women who protect us “…from enemies foreign and domestic” The efforts taken and underway by our Judiciary and all other allies to safeguard Mr. Mueller and his Team are sincerely appreciated: so we all know the outcome one way or another in honor of our current patriots and also the memory of our fallen.

    2. The “whataboutism” defense is getting old from Trump supporters. If he was innocent and this was a “Democratic plot” then why has everyone close to Trump lied and evaded at every turn when it comes to Russia? Why does Trump praise Russia’s leader while heaping scorn at US law enforcement officials? The desperate attempts to take minor complaints about Trump from a leaked phone record while also crying about legally obtained emails from a campaign that used stolen emails and help from Russia to win is only making it more obvious the extent of the crime that generates that level of shrill defensiveness. Trump is guilty and his only strategy is to make sure the evidence and all his accusers are seen as tainted. Too bad his approval numbers have already imploded and no one trusts him because it’s obvious to everyone except trolls, bots and Birthers.

    3. I think the indictments already made public show that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If nothing criminal happened, why are people making deals? Not to mention that it sounds like there’s also some run-of-the-mill RICO/money laundering activity going on, but that’s straight-up racketeering, not “conspiracy with a foreign power”.