Originally posted at The Hill
Conservative efforts to discredit the Justice Department special counsel are intensifying as Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling moves steadily closer to the White House.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly frustrated by what they view as a partisan exercise that’s rife with conflicts of interest. A half-dozen GOP lawmakers held a press conference on Wednesday to demand new investigations into Mueller’s team.
Also on Wednesday, a conservative watchdog group filed a lawsuit to pry loose information about special counsel investigators, a day after it blasted out emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that the group claimed indicated prosecutorial bias.
Conservative media amplified the growing calls for Mueller to be fired, with Fox News going wall-to-wall with demands that the probe be shut down.
At a Wednesday press conference, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said that Republicans intend to investigate the “unprecedented bias against President Trump that exists when we allow people who hate the president to participate in the investigations against him.”
“A witch hunt continues against the president with tremendous bias, no purpose and no end in sight,” Gaetz said.
The effort on the right to cast doubt on the special counsel is finding broad support among conservatives. Aside from some angry tweets from President Trump, though, the White House has mostly steered clear of political attacks on Mueller.
The in-house legal team does not want to cross the special counsel at a critical time for the investigation, while the political shop is focused primarily on the upcoming Senate special election in Alabama.
At Tuesday’s briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders signaled that the White House has concerns that the special counsel might be biased against Trump. But she largely sidestepped a question about whether the probe has been compromised.
“I think we’ve seen some reports that certainly caused a great deal of concern and we hope that those are fully looked at and investigated,” Sanders said.
The Republican National Committee is following the White House’s lead and keeping quiet on Mueller, although the national party has eagerly highlighted examples of the media misreporting stories about the probe.
That leaves the heavy lifting to discredit the Mueller probe to a disparate group of conservative activists, anchors and lawmakers who believe they’ve come into a trove of new political ammunition in recent days.
The right has seized on the revelation that the special counsel reassigned top FBI investigator Peter Strzok after discovering he had sent anti-Trump text messages during the presidential race to an FBI lawyer, who was also on Mueller’s team, while the two were having an affair.
Strzok is now at the center of several controversies. He was reportedly behind former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to describe former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal server arrangement as “extremely careless,” rather than “grossly negligent” — a designation that potentially could have triggered criminal charges against her.
Republicans are furious that Strzok had a hand in interviewing Clinton aides during the Clinton email investigation. They want to know the extent of his involvement with the prosecution of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as whether the FBI pursued allegations about Trump in the unconfirmed Fusion GPS opposition research dossier at Strozk’s behest.
“If Mueller was doing such a great job investigating collusion, why could he not have found the conflict of interest within his own agency?” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said at a Wednesday press conference.
The House Intelligence Committee is seeking answers from the special counsel about the circumstances surrounding Strzok’s reassignment from high-profile investigator on the special counsel to the FBI’s human resources department.
Meanwhile, the conservative group Judicial Watch is suing to obtain Strzok’s text messages.
A day earlier, the group released hundreds of pages of emails it obtained through a FOIA request and touted an email exchange between special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann and then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
In the email, sent months before the special counsel’s office was created, Weissmann said he was in “awe” of Yates for standing up to Trump by refusing to defend his controversial travel ban — a move that was viewed by Republicans as an unlawful abdication of duty. Trump fired Yates on the same day.
“How much more evidence do we need that the Mueller operation has been irredeemably compromised by anti-Trump partisans?” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “Shut it down.”
The notion that Mueller’s probe has been hopelessly compromised is starting to seep in even among Republican who once said they were supportive of the special counsel, like Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who once believed that an independent probe was necessary to insulate the investigation from politics.
“I was the first guy on our committee who said we should call for a special counsel,” Stewart told The Hill. “But I have to tell you, I have growing concerns about the special counsel. I think [Mueller’s] relationships, not just with the Comey there, but with others on the special counsel, are becoming more and more troublesome, and I think he’s expanding it beyond what our intentions were.”
Those concerns are being broadcast by conservative media giants like Fox News’s Sean Hannity, whose nightly show has become a sounding board for claims about Mueller’s alleged corruption.
“Robert Mueller’s corrupt and extremely biased team of liberal political crusaders … have one singular mission, and that is to destroy your elected president, Donald Trump, and unseat the commander in chief,” Hannity said Tuesday night. “They are trying to create a constitutional crisis that will threaten the rule of law in this country.”
While there is growing alarm among conservatives at the scope of Mueller’s probe, some of Trump’s allies believe it is the best move for the White House to remain quiet on the matter for now.
Mueller still enjoys a sterling reputation in Washington, and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have urged for him to have the space he needs to complete the investigation.
“I have a lot of respect for Robert Mueller,” said Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend, said of the former FBI director. “He’s a hero for what he did at the FBI after 9/11. We did not have one serious terror attack during his long tenure at the Bureau.”
“But he’s a prosecutor now and prosecutors like to prosecute,” Ruddy continued. “The best approach for the president, in my opinion, is to drive his popularity by creating a bipartisan consensus on such things as infrastructure, education and other matters. Trump has the ability to be a great unifier, and popular presidents are not removed from office.”