What's behind Trump's attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation?

by Paul Thomas / 04 August, 2018

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Robert Mueller. Illustration/Weef

The Trump Administration’s attempts to discredit the investigation into Russian meddling adds to the suspicion that the President knows more than he has admitted to.

It takes doggedness to keep questioning behaviour when the perpetrators insist there’s nothing questionable about it and proceed to do it again even more brazenly.

What tends to happen is that the question gets asked less frequently, even as it becomes more urgent. Which is the case with the following: if “Russiagate”, for want of a better shorthand term, is what President Donald Trump and his acolytes claim – fake news, a hoax, a witch-hunt, a conspiracy orchestrated by the Democratic Party and implemented by the deep state to thwart the will of the people – why go to such lengths to discredit and curtail the investigation? Why not let it run its course, secure in the knowledge nothing will come of it, and reap the political benefit when it turns out to have been a frame-up all along?

Imagine: after a relentless investigation-cum-fishing expedition spanning almost two years, special counsel Robert Mueller drops his findings but they land not with a bang but a whimper. Bear in mind that expectations have risen with each passing month and we’re way past the point at which technicalities and obscure infractions, even if they rise to the level of criminality, will amount to a satisfying denouement. Trump has got away with so much that used to be unthinkable and the speculation of grievous misconduct, up to and including treason, has become so feverish that anything short of a bombshell will be deemed a let-down, if not a nothing-burger. Then the backlash will begin: this is what we tore ourselves apart over?

The reckoning would be brutal. A Trump speechwriter might deploy the words of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, who quoted the Old Testament Book of Hosea when promising that Germany would pay a terrible price for its 1940-41 bombing offensive against population centres: “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

The Democrats, the mainstream media and the extra-parliamentary anti-Trump opposition known as the Resistance would be battered into submission, the last-named reduced to a level of irrelevance that threatened its existence. The Republicans would retain control of Congress and most state houses and legislatures, while also occupying the moral high ground. Trump would only have to stay alive to be re-elected in 2020. He would be impregnable and unrestrainable.

The President took the word of an adversary over evidence gathered by US intelligence agencies. Photo/Getty Images

The President took the word of an adversary over evidence gathered by US intelligence agencies. Photo/Getty Images

Undermining trust

But Team Trump has done the opposite: attempted to stymie the investigation at every turn; smeared upright, dedicated public servants; attached more credence to the bland assertions of a foreign, adversarial government than intelligence and evidence gathered by the US’s own law enforcement and security agencies; and undermined public trust in those agencies by accusing them of corruption, unlawful behaviour and conspiracy.

Behind the covering fire of Trump’s Twitter barrages, his congressional allies have continually downplayed the significance of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and sought to rein in or block efforts to establish the nature, scale and purpose of the interference and identify who carried it out and who assisted the cause.

In March, the Republican-controlled house intelligence committee, chaired by Trump uber-loyalist Devin Nunes, wrapped up its investigation declaring there was nothing to see here. Republican committee members acknowledged some Russian meddling, but disagreed with “the narrative that they were trying to help Trump”.

Senior Democrat member Adam Schiff responded thus: “The majority was not willing to pursue the facts wherever they would lead and would prove afraid to compel witnesses to answer questions relevant to our investigation. It proved unwilling to subpoena documents like phone records, text messages, bank records and other key records so that we might determine the truth about the most significant attack on our institutions in history.”

Congressional Republicans continue to inflate essentially peripheral matters, such as the anti-Trump messages exchanged by two FBI agents into scandals that de-legitimise the investigation, despite these matters being officially examined and found to be nothing of the sort.

The President’s legal spokesman Rudy Giuliani. Photo/Getty Images

The President’s legal spokesman Rudy Giuliani. Photo/Getty Images

Costs focus

They’ve portrayed the Mueller investigation as a bloated extravagance. According to the Huffington Post, as of March 31 the investigation had cost $11.3 million, roughly what the US government spends per minute. The Justice Department’s 2018 budget is more than $40 billion.

Recently, 11 House Republicans initiated impeachment proceedings against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s boss and a life-long Republican, for “dereliction of duty” – declining to hand over certain documents. Meanwhile, Trump’s legal spokesman Rudy Giuliani, a former prosecutor, labelled the Mueller probe “the most corrupt investigation I have ever seen”.

It’s worth acquainting ourselves with the target of this smear: Mueller, also a Republican, was a decorated Marine Corps officer who fought in Vietnam, has held numerous high-level investigative and prosecuting roles, served in five administrations and is the second-longest-serving FBI director after J Edgar Hoover.

It defies belief that the President and his party have embarked on this ruthless and irresponsible campaign despite being serenely confident of total vindication. Indeed, Trump’s behaviour invites the assumption that he knows, left unchecked, the investigation will lead to his disgrace.

The campaign is driven by the probably-correct belief that the endgame will play out in the political arena rather than a court of law. Mueller is expected to abide by Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The risk to Trump, therefore, is that Mueller delivers a report that forms the basis for impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is a political process: the House assembles a case and the trial takes place in the Senate. Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority.

The aim of the campaign is, first, to galvanise the base ahead of the November mid-term elections in the hope of retaining a majority in both chambers of Congress and, second, to muddy the waters to the extent that whatever Mueller’s conclusions and the evidence he produces in support of them, roughly half the country won’t believe a word of it.

That’s probably what Trump ally and right-wing provocateur Roger Stone had in mind when he warned that any attempt to impeach would lead to civil war.

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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