Trump Fighting Mueller in the Court of Public Opinion

Over the past week, President Donald Trump issued a series of tweets quoting conservative personalities who challenged the legitimacy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and then added his own complaints about the way the investigation was conducted.

Those irregularities were highlighted Monday by the FBI’s announcement of the firing of senior agent Peter Strzok. In July 2016, Strzok initiated the FBI investigation of possible Trump collusion with Russia on the thinnest of evidence. His strong anti-Trump and pro-Clinton biases, as expressed in messages to fellow FBI employee Lisa Page, deeply tainted the integrity and impartiality of that investigation. Strzok also played a key role in the Clinton email investigation, as well as the investigation of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Strzok, who was the chief of the counterespionage section of the FBI, was suspended from his duties on the Mueller investigation in July 2017, after the biased messages he exchanged with Page came to the attention of the inspector general of the Department of Justice. Strzok’s lawyer claimed that the decision by senior Department of Justice officials to fire Strzok overruled a lower level bureaucratic recommendation that he be suspended for 60 days and demoted, but not fired.

A FIZZLE OR AN EXPLOSION

Mueller’s failure to produce any evidence to back up the allegation that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians has led to growing expectations that his probe is likely to fizzle out at some point with no criminal charges being filed against any members of Trump’s inner circle related to the collusion charge. But former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is the spokesman for Trump’s legal team, told conservative commentator Sean Hannity last week, “the real story here is not that this case isn’t going to fizzle. It’s going to blow up on them.”

Giuliani was referring to a plot led by top officials at the Obama Department of Justice and FBI, including Bruce Ohr, James Comey, Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok, and Obama’s CIA Director, John Brennan, to concoct an excuse to launch a secret investigation of the Trump campaign based largely upon fake evidence supplied by paid agents of the Clinton campaign. Meanwhile, many of these same top Obama administration officials were colluding to make sure that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted for keeping and transmitting government documents, many of them secret, on her private email server, or for selling her political influence to major donors to the Clinton Foundation while she was Obama’s secretary of state and the prohibitive early favorite to win the 2016 election.

After the announcement that Strzok was fired, Giuliani told Fox News commentator Sean Hannity that the disgraced FBI agent “played a much bigger role in this than a lot of the media wants to admit. First of all, he was there at the very beginning. He wrote all the initial documents justifying this investigation. He ran it for 11 months. He conducted the critical interview with Flynn with a very strange situation where Flynn pled guilty to a lie that the FBI said he didn’t — he wasn’t guilty of, go figure that out.

“He’s the one who was carrying the dossier and using the dossier to justify the FISA [wiretaps on Carter Page]. That has to be all unraveled. There is no doubt there are four false affidavits filed with the FISA court.”

“It isn’t just Strzok,” Giuliani continued. “He’s a bit of a puppet. There’s Mueller, he’s a puppet. . . The guy running it is [former CIA director John] Brennan. And he should be in front of a grand jury.”

THE OHR CONNECTION

The latest focus of attention is the role of Bruce Ohr, who was the fourth highest-ranking official in Obama’s Department of Justice. Ohr served as the key link between the FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion campaign and Christopher Steele. Steele created a dossier on Trump based on unverified information from Russian sources he had recruited during his years working as a British MI6 spy and other dirt funneled to him by some of Clinton’s most notorious political operatives. Steele was paid by Marc Elias, a member of the Perkins Coie law firm that was working for both the Clinton campaign and the Democrat National Committee. Elias reportedly paid $1 million to the well-connected Washington political PR firm known as GPS Fusion, which, in turn, hired Steele to write the dossier for $160,000.

According to Republican Congressman Mark Meadow, Mr. Ohr will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on August 28 about more than 60 contacts he had with Steele. They began in January 2016, six months before the FBI investigation was formally launched, and continued through May 15, 2017. The corrupt relationship between Steele, Fusion GPS, the FBI and the Clinton campaign was not publicly revealed until October 2017.

Ohr’s connection to Steele and his meetings with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson were revealed in December 2017, and resulted in Ohr’s demotion at the Department of Justice, where he is still employed. A memo released by Congressman Nunes’ committee this past February revealed that Ohr’s wife, Nellie, had been hired by Fusion GPS as an expert on Russia to help Steele with his research on the dossier.

Mr. Ohr continued to meet periodically with Steele even after the FBI severed its formal connections with the former British spy, in late October 2016, because he had violated his agreement with them by sharing his anti-Trump findings with reporters.

WHY STEELE WAS BELIEVED

Steele has said that he had become personally alarmed by the information he was getting on Trump from his Russian informants, and began sharing the information with the FBI on his own initiative in July 2016. The FBI accepted Steele’s information on Trump as authentic, both because of Steele’s previous track record as a reliable source, and because his allegations were consistent with other reports it had received of Russian contacts with Trump advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

At the direction of Fusion GPS, in September 2016, Steele began sharing allegations from the dossier with reporters from the Washington Post, New York Times, Yahoo News, New Yorker and CNN. Most of these news outlets declined to publish the allegations at that time because they could not be verified.

In October, Steele held a Skype interview with reporter David Corn of the liberal publication Mother Jones. It published an extensive article citing Steele’s allegations, without identifying the source, just a few days before the election. However, the significance of the report was all but lost in the pre-election furor over FBI Director James Comey’s announcements about thousands of Clinton emails which the FBI had discovered on a laptop owned by Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin.

After the FBI cut its ties with Steele, Ohr met with him a dozen times from November 22, 2016, to May 15, 2017. After each meeting, Ohr was debriefed by an FBI agent who would write a report on the latest dirt Steele had found on Trump, for use by the Russian-collusion investigation. In this way, Steele and Fusion GPS maintained their influence over the FBI investigation even though Steele had violated the terms of his original FBI agreement. The FBI also continued to vouch for the accuracy of Steele’s unverified allegations against Trump in its renewal applications to the FISA court for a secret surveillance warrant against former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

A KEY TO THE ANTI-TRUMP CONSPIRACY.

Last week, Trump focused some of his Twitter comments on the failure of the mainstream media to adequately report on the Ohr connection and explain its significance to the American public. “The big story that the Fake News media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly. It was Fusion GPS that hired Steele to write the phony and discredited dossier, paid for by crooked Hillary and the DNC,” Trump tweeted. “Do you believe Nelly worked for Fusion and her husband still works for the Department of ‘Justice.’ I have never seen anything so rigged in my life. Our A.G. [Jeff Sessions] is scared stiff and Missing in Action. It is all starting to be revealed – not pretty. Inspector General’s report soon? Witch Hunt!”

In a Fox News interview on Sunday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes stressed the American people’s “need to know” about the highly improper and partisan origins of Trump-Russia investigation. He said his committee has sent a letter urging President Trump to declassify all of the relevant government “documents that don’t endanger national security [or intelligence] sources and methods,” so that the truth can come out.

Nunes and fellow GOP House committee chairmen Trey Gowdy and Bob Goodlatte have pressed the Department of Justice for months to release the documents related to the Russia and Clinton email investigations. The DOJ’s response to these demands has been painfully slow, which prompted frustrated Republicans to threaten Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the senior DOJ official directly in charge of the investigation, with impeachment. Others have suggested that the production of the documents is being obstructed by pro-Clinton Obama holdovers within the federal government who are trying to conceal the magnitude of the anti-Trump plot.

Trump quoted commentator Graham Ledger, who wrote, “There has been no evidence whatsoever that Donald Trump or the campaign was involved in any kind of collusion to fix the 2016 election. In fact, the evidence is the opposite, that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats colluded with the Russians to fix the 2016 election.”

The president also cited Fox Business News anchor Maria Bartiromo, who tweeted, “No evidence to launch even an investigation into potential collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians, and here we are, a year and a half later.”

SEEKING MORE INFORMATION ON MCCABE

Some of the most illuminating government documents about the anti-Trump plot were released through the efforts of the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. The group has sued in federal court for the release of all text messages sent by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who was directly involved in some of the anti-Trump plotting by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. McCabe was deeply involved in the Clinton email investigation and refused to recuse himself, even though his wife had run for elective office in Virginia in 2015 based upon support from the Clinton camp. McCabe was fired this March over criticism in the DOJ inspector general’s report, which accused him of lying to fellow FBI officials.

Trump had publicly complained about McCabe’s bias during the presidential campaign. Last week, he demanded in a tweet that the FBI promptly release the requested documents. “Why isn’t the FBI giving Andrew McCabe text messages to Judicial Watch or appropriate governmental authorities. FBI said they won’t give up even one (I may have to get involved; do not destroy!) What are they hiding? McCabe wife took big campaign dollars from Hillary people.

“Will the FBI ever recover it’s once stellar reputation, so badly damaged by Comey, McCabe, Peter Strzok and. . . the lovely Lisa Page, and other top officials now dismissed or fired? So many of the great men and women of the FBI have been hurt by these clowns and losers!”

GRAHAM CALLS FOR ANOTHER SPECIAL COUNSEL

In a Sunday interview on Fox News, Senator Lindsay Graham compared the way the FBI handled the Clinton email investigation and Trump collusion probe. “Here’s what I would tell the American people. Both campaigns were investigated by the FBI and the Department of Justice in 2016. When it came to the Clinton campaign, she got a pass. The criminal investigation of the Clinton campaign was a joke. When it came to the Trump campaign, it was corrupt, it was biased and I think unethical.”

Graham added, “Mr. Ohr should not have had any role in investigating the Trump campaign because his wife worked at Fusion GPS. The FBI agent in charge of the Clinton campaign [Peter Strzok] hated Trump, liked Clinton, and also started the counterintelligence investigation against Trump.”

Senator Graham has called for the appointment of a second special counsel to look into the way the FBI and Justice Department handled suspicions of collusion in the Trump campaign, as compared to how they reacted when a staffer for Senator Dianne Feinstein was discovered to have been a Chinese spy.

“When it came to Dianne Feinstein,” Graham said, “they went to her and said, ‘hey, there’s a Chinese person working on your staff that we think may be tied to the Chinese government.’ They never did the same for Trump. . .

“We need a special counsel to look at all [the] things Department of Justice and FBI [did] when it came to the Trump investigation, particularly the counterintelligence investigation.”

GIULIANI SAYS THAT MORE REVELATIONS ARE COMING

These are the kind of issues with the Trump collusion investigation that Giuliani was referring to last week when he told Hannity, “There’s a lot more to what they did that nobody knows about yet. A lot more to the obstruction of justice, to the collusion, to the fake dossier. . .

“Mueller is going to have a lot to answer for. I said a long time ago the investigation here has to be on the investigators. Because we can’t let this happen again in American history.”

Giuliani and Trump’s other private lawyer, Jay Sekulow, acted as substitute hosts for Sean Hannity’s regular Friday afternoon radio talk show, giving the two lawyers three hours of national air time to present Trump’s response to the accusations against him to a largely friendly audience. Giuliani said that the Mueller investigation was illegitimate because it was “born in corruption.” He also called for Mrs. Clinton and James Comey to be investigated for their “clear” legal violations. Giuliani, who served as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and a US Associate Attorney General during the Reagan administration, said that if he were attorney general today, he would appoint an independent counsel to “appropriately prosecute” Comey and Strzok.

In a Sunday interview on CNN, Giuliani said that Mueller had told him he hoped to wind up his investigation by the end of this month in order to avoid interfering with the November midterm election. “September 1 was the date that Bob Mueller gave me two months ago,” Giuliani said. “I thought he meant, well that’ll keep us clear of the election. And they did say something like they didn’t want to repeat some of the mistakes that Comey made,” referring to the former FBI director’s widely criticized announcements of the reopening and closing of the Clinton email investigation less than two weeks before the 2016 presidential election.

WILL MUELLER HONOR A SEPTEMBER DEADLINE?

It has long been Justice Department policy to suspend investigations of elected officials during campaign season. Even though Trump’s name will not appear on the ballot in November, he has already announced that he will be actively campaigning to galvanize voter support for Republican candidates across the country during the two months prior to Election Day.

On Monday, Giuliani issued a statement declaring that the Trump’s lawyers would not agree to any kind of interview with Mueller to take place after September 1.

Giuliani has said he now believes that the initiation of Mueller’s investigation was illegal because of the anti-Trump bias which drove that decision, combined with the absence of any evidence that an underlying crime of collusion with the Russians was ever committed.

The president’s lawyers have been negotiating with Mueller for months about the conditions under which they might allow President Trump to answer the special counsel’s questions. Trump’s lawyers have said the president wants to talk to Mueller to clear his name, but their concern is that such an interrogation would be a “perjury trap” for the president.

WHY TRUMP SHOULD FEAR A PERJURY TRAP

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy disputes claims by Trump’s critics that he should have nothing to fear if he tells the truth. McCarthy points out that Trump could be in jeopardy even if he tries to answer Mueller’s questions with complete honesty.

An honest witness may still be at risk due to an innocent failure to recall a pertinent detail or misunderstanding the question being asked. In this case, the danger is even greater because it is apparent that Mueller and his prosecutors will be trying to catch the president in a lie.

According to McCarthy, that is what happened to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, when he “was questioned about his [December 2016] conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. There were some discrepancies between Flynn’s account of the discussions and the FBI’s understanding of them. . . That’s because they had recordings of the conversations — likely because the Russian ambassador, an agent of an adversarial foreign power, was being monitored. . .”

HOW MUELLER TRAPPED FLYNN

“Why,” McCarthy asks, “conduct an investigative interview, carrying potential criminal peril, under circumstances in which the FBI already knew (a) it was Flynn’s job in the Trump transition team and as incoming national security adviser to consult with foreign counterparts and (b) Flynn had not floated any arguably corrupt quid pro quo to Kislyak (e.g., sanctions relief as a reward for Russia’s support of Trump’s presidential bid)?”

McCarthy believes that Flynn was deliberately caught in a perjury trap set by Mueller’s team, and that he didn’t even realize he was being interrogated by the FBI as a suspect. McCarthy also notes that, “the first set of investigators gave [Flynn] the benefit of the doubt, but Mueller’s team drew the opposite conclusion. Yes, Flynn ultimately pled guilty, but when highly experienced investigators assess the same basic facts differently, the matter cannot be black-and-white.”

McCarthy also suggests that Flynn pled guilty to lying to federal investigators not “because he is guilty [but] because enormous pressure, such as the possibility of charging his son, was put on him. We also know that the question of whether to prosecute him was a judgment call — one on which Mueller aggressively said yes, when others had said no.”

WHY TRUMP WON’T TALK ABOUT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

In recent statements, Trump’s lawyers have said they might allow Trump to answer questions from Mueller about allegation of collusion with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, because Trump will inevitably deny it. However, questions to Trump on the obstruction of justice after he took office will be much trickier to answer, because his guilt or innocence will hang on Trump’s actual intent when he fired James Comey, or what he meant when he allegedly asked Comey to go easy when investigating Michael Flynn. Trump’s public explanations on those actions have varied, and Trump’s lawyers don’t know what other witnesses have told Mueller, so those are the areas where the danger is greatest of Trump walking into a “perjury trap.” As long as Trump refuses to answer those questions, there is no way for Mueller to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what the president’s intent really was.

Reports from the White House say that the president’s lawyers are not afraid that Mueller might ask for a subpoena to compel Trump to answer questions under oath. That is because there is serious legal question about whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed, due to his position as the head of the executive branch of the federal government. Trump’s lawyers would challenge such a subpoena in federal court and the appeal process would be likely to drag on for a year or more. The end result would be a ruling by the US Supreme Court which, by then, will have a 5-4 majority of conservative justices, thanks to the almost certain confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in coming months.

ALL TRUMP HAS TO WORRY ABOUT IS IMPEACHMENT

Some legal experts also say that a sitting president cannot be put on trial in a court of law, and that the only way that a president can be disciplined is through impeachment. That is why conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh says, “a special counsel investigation is pure politics.

“The only possible way they [Democrats] can get rid of Trump here is . . . to drive his approval numbers down so that Republicans in Congress have no reason to support him. If Republicans in the House and Senate could be forced to abandon their support for Trump, as happened to Nixon, then he would have to go,” Limbaugh said. However, given the loyal support for Trump by 90% of Republicans, such a scenario is extremely unlikely.

IT STARTED WITH THE CLINTON COVERUP

Limbaugh believes that allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians were driven by “an elaborate cover-up of the efforts that were undertaken to exonerate Hillary Clinton. . . [who] was statutorily guilty as sin. . .

“And so they took steps to exonerate Hillary Clinton and I believe at the same time, in order to cover up what they were really doing, they started this whole game that Trump was illegal, that Trump was corrupt, and that Trump was colluding with the Russians, the Russians were meddling with Trump. . .

“Had she won, no problem. . . Nobody would know 90% of what we know now. But she went and blew it by losing. . .

“And that’s what all of this is. The made-up dossier, the made-up allegation of collusion and meddling, the planting of spies in the Trump campaign. . .

“Now, the Mueller investigation is a continuation of that cover-up. It’s a deception campaign. It’s designed to take everybody’s eyes off the ball.”

PROTECTING OBAMA

Limbaugh attributes the desperation to divert attention away from the anti-Trump conspiracy to the fact that, “at the top of the list of people that must be shielded is Barack Obama, because all of this took place while he was president. It all took place under the auspices of his administration, his Department of Justice, his FBI, his authorization, his knowledge. Obama’s already on the record as having told a falsehood that he didn’t know Hillary Clinton was using an illegal server.”

While the picture of the Clinton coverup, which led, in turn, to the invention of the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory, has grown clearer, what Mueller will do next, and when, remains largely a matter of speculation, because the special counsel has been keeping his intentions secret. However, the opinion polls show that the American public are growing tired and increasingly skeptical of the Russia-Trump conspiracy theory, which puts increasing pressure on the special counsel to wrap up his investigation and submit his final report as soon as possible.

Part of the problem is that Mueller has yet to explain how the alleged Trump campaign conspiracy with the Russians might have worked, and who was involved. While Mueller’s indictments have provided a clear picture of how the Russians tried to influence the 2016 election by manipulating social media and hacking Democrat emails, it is not clear where members of the Trump campaign fit in. Former Trump advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page were peripheral, low-level figures who had almost no influence on the campaign. They were pawns, not conspirators.

Mueller’s prosecutions of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, as well as his business partner, Rick Gates, also seem unrelated to the alleged conspiracy with the Russians to influence the 2016 election.

Similarly, without Trump’s agreement to answer Mueller’s questions about obstruction of justice, which now seems increasingly unlikely, it will be very difficult for the special counsel to build a convincing criminal case on that charge.

TRUMP TOWER MEETING EVIDENCE THERE WAS NO PLOT

The only hard evidence of meaningful contact between Russian agents and senior members of the Trump campaign is the now infamous Trump Tower meeting that was organized by Donald Trump Jr. on June 9, 2016, and attended by Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner. The circumstances of that meeting have long been known, and were not changed by President Trump’s recent tweet. It confirmed that Trump’s son set up the meeting with a Russian lawyer, based on assurances to Trump Jr. from Rob Goldstone, a British go-between, that the lawyer would provide information that the Trump campaign could use against Hillary Clinton.

But the meeting was failure. The Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer had no useful information to offer. She was pushing an entirely different agenda, in which the Trump people weren’t interested. The meeting broke up after only 20 minutes, and nothing came from it, except for some embarrassing headlines when it was revealed a year later.

But the fact that the Russians set up such a meeting using a third-party intermediary is evidence that, up to that point, they did not have an open communication channel to anyone in the upper levels of the Trump campaign. If such a channel did exist, there would have been no need for such a meeting, and any damaging information the Russians may have had on Hillary Clinton would have already been flowing through it.

On the contrary, the fact that the meeting took place indicates that less than two months before the FBI launched its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, the top leaders of the Trump campaign had no idea of what the Russian lawyer had to offer them, and when they found out, they walked away disappointed.

Lee Smith, a reporter for the Real Clear Investigations website, has cited newly released emails documenting the close ties between Bruce Ohr in the Justice Department, Glenn Simpson, one of the founders of Fusion GPS, and Christopher Steele, and the fact that the Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting, Natalia Vesenitskaya, had hired Simpson in 2014 to help with her campaign to get the US sanctions on her Russian clients, under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, repealed.

Smith suggests that the Trump Tower meeting may have been a setup engineered by Simpson for the benefit of his client, the Clinton campaign, in order to entrap and discredit senior members of the Trump campaign, with the help of his other client, Natalia Vesenitskaya. Simpson has said in Senate testimony that he was still working for Vesenitskaya at the time of the Trump Tower meeting. He also had dinner with her both the night before and the night after the meeting, but testified that he had no knowledge of the meeting itself. Smith challenges that statement.

He also points out that Vesenitskaya would have been an illogical choice by the Kremlin if it had been behind the meeting at Trump Tower with Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner, because the Russian lawyer does not speak English.

THE INVESTIGATION HAS FAILED

There was no mention of the Trump Tower meeting in the Steele dossier, which served as the blueprint of the FBI investigation through the 2016 election. That is further indication that the FBI never found the alleged high-level communications channel between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and that such a channel probably never existed.

It is now more than two and a half years after then-CIA director John Brennan started pushing the conspiracy theory, and more than a year after the investigation was taken over by Robert Mueller. Yet there is still no evidence that a Trump-Russia conspiracy ever existed. That should be more than ample reason for skepticism and a re-evaluation, even among those who remain in deep denial about the outcome of the 2016 election and refuse to accept Donald Trump as their president.