What does the world look like today if you’re Robert Mueller?
You’ve got a huge, sprawling, immeasurably complicated job, and the President of the United States has just put you on notice of what you already have long suspected: You may not have much time.
A pair of stories published this week by the New York Times and Washington Post announced that the White House is looking to “undercut” Mueller’s investigation and is “scouring” for information on potential conflicts of interest on the part of Mueller’s team. The stories describe a systematic effort to comb through the backgrounds of Mueller and his office in the hope of finding material damaging enough to merit firing Mueller, requesting the recusal of members of his team, or at the very least discrediting the independent investigation in the eyes of the public.
The White House is also examining the possible scope of the president’s pardon power and pushing the argument that the special counsel investigation should be sharply limited to exclude Trump’s finances. The attacks on Mueller and his office have been going on for a while now, but this new wave of hostility from the White House appears to have been instigated by concerns that Mueller’s probe will widen to include Trump’s business transactions—or that it already has.
These reports follow Trump’s own sharp criticism of Mueller in his extensive interview with the Times on Wednesday, along with his attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for appointing Mueller following Sessions’ recusal. After expressing his belief that “a special counsel should never have been appointed in this case,” Trump suggests that Mueller’s having met with the White House to discuss coming on as FBI Director following Comey’s dismissal constitutes a conflict of interest. He also hints darkly at other, unnamed improprieties on Mueller’s part: “There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.” And he seems to call into question the integrity of Mueller’s staff as well, presumably in reference to the fact that some of them have donated to Democrats: “[T]here are so many conflicts that everybody has.” The White House has also tried to discredit Mueller as a close friend of Comey, which Trump himself described as “very bothersome.”
Beyond attacking the integrity of the investigators, Trump’s aides are also seeking to cramp the scope of the investigation itself. While the new head of Trump’s personal legal team, John Dowd, has denied any discussion of the pardon power within the White House, the Post writes that both the president and his lawyers have inquired about Trump’s ability to pardon aides, family members, and himself.
Likewise, the White House is doing its best to telegraph its intent to police the boundaries of the special counsel’s activities. When asked by the Times how he would react to Mueller’s investigating the Trump family finances “unrelated to Russia,” the president declared that such a step would be “a violation.” And Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the next day that, “The president’s making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation.” In an interview with the Post, Trump’s private counsel Jay Sekulow declared, “The scope is going to have to stay within [Mueller’s] mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.” Sekulow pointed to the president’s past real estate dealings as an example of material off limits to the special counsel.
It all adds up to a systematic push-back on the independence and integrity of the special counsel investigation. As one “Republican in touch with the administration” quoted in the Post suggests, the White House may well be “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.
So now put yourself in Mueller’s shoes. You are both a highly-experienced investigator (you’ve run the FBI for 12 years) and a highly-experienced prosecutor (you’ve headed the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, served as a U.S. Attorney, and prosecuted murder cases as perhaps the most overqualified assistant U.S. attorney in American history). You have staffed your investigation with a group of lawyers of remarkable depth and range of experience. You have on your staff Russian language capability. You have truly remarkable appellate capacity. And you have first class expertise in money laundering, campaign finance, organized crime, and other relevant areas.
But it all may not matter, because the President may decide either to issue a bunch of preemptive pardons or to try to either fire you or rein in your jurisdiction. And the talent you have collected is under attack.