The Memo: Trump team stokes fight over Mueller

President Trump and his team are intensifying their attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as the investigation enters its second year.

Rudy Giuliani told The Hill on Thursday — one year to the day since Mueller was appointed — that “it is an absolute requirement that the investigation and the investigators are put under scrutiny.”

Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who joined the president’s outside legal team last month, highlighted speculation that has been sweeping conservative circles — fanned by the president himself — that the FBI may have had a spy inside the 2016 Trump campaign.

“If it is true that they put a spy — or two — inside the Trump campaign, it is not different from Watergate, except it is Democrats doing it to Republicans, rather than Republicans doing it to Democrats,” Giuliani told The Hill.

Giuliani cited a New York Times story from Wednesday as support for this contention. That story did not say there was a spy inside the campaign but rather that a government informant had met with two Trump campaign aides, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

Nevertheless, Giuliani insisted, “I said a long time ago, the only crimes were committed by the investigators rather than the president. So far, everything I have seen vindicates that opinion.”

Trump loyalists might argue that the investigation is a “witch hunt,” as the president himself claimed yet again on Twitter on Thursday morning.

Yet that ignores five guilty pleas that have come out of the investigation, including from former national security advisor Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign official Richard Gates and Papadopoulos.

It also glosses over the raft of charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort; the revelation that Trump had repaid attorney Michael Cohen for payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, contrary to his earlier protestations; the indictment of 13 Russians for election interference; and the broader questions that are still being investigated, including whether Trump obstructed justice in his firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.

Some Democrats, including Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Al Green (Texas), have called for Trump’s impeachment. Party leaders have so far proven resistant to those calls, but few people beyond Trump’s core supporters doubt that the Mueller probe has done the president serious damage.

“It has obviously been an enormous distraction for the administration,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “Whatever the amount of political capital [he had], it has been diminished.”

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said that the probe had created problems for Trump already and was likely “a long way from a conclusion.”

Sheinkopf, himself a New Yorker, also said of Giuliani that “his style, which is quite New York — bombastic, abrasive and glib — is not playing well in the rest of the nation. It’s too New York. That has nothing to do with his own abilities. It has everything to do with the cultural clash.”

Still, the president himself is keeping all guns blazing.

His Thursday morning tweets sarcastically heralded the beginning of “the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History.” A follow-up tweet insisted that the probe was “disgusting, illegal and unwarranted.”

Some supporters of the president acknowledge there is a question about whether his aggressive posture toward the probe has helped or hurt him. But they say they understand his frustration.

“Unfortunately [his approach] is one he sees as necessary,” said Barry Bennett, a senior advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He is sitting there every day being accused of treason with no evidence. … He wants to fight back and I cannot fault him for that. I don’t know it is always the right strategy, but I understand why he feels that way.”

There are also some signs that the president’s attacks on Mueller, often amplified by political and media allies, are having an effect. A CBS News poll earlier this month indicated that 53 percent of adults believed the Russia probe was “politically motivated” whereas just 44 percent believed it was “justified.”

The last time the news organization polled on the same question, in December 2017, opinion was split more evenly between those two options, with 48 percent saying it was politically motivated and 46 percent saying it was justified.

But news has been breaking around the Russian allegations, the Mueller probe, and the related investigation into Cohen, on a daily basis of late — something that further deepens the political peril for Trump.

On Wednesday alone, newly released documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee raised new questions about a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower attended by a Russian lawyer as well as the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Manafort.

The Senate Intelligence Committee said it agreed with an earlier assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that Russian President Vladimir Putin had sought to help Trump in the 2016 election.

The same day, Giuliani told multiple outlets that Mueller’s team had agreed they could not indict a sitting president.

A Reuters report on Thursday indicated that Manafort’s former son-in-law was cooperating with investigators, further complicating the former campaign chairman’s legal defense.

The biggest immediate question around the probe is whether Trump will consent to a voluntary interview with Mueller’s team. He and his allies have sent contradictory signals on that issue, though some in his circle say privately that they don’t believe he will ever consent to an interview.

Giuliani told The Hill that a decision on the interview was still “kind of premature.”

“There are things in favor and things against — probably right now, more things against,” he added. “We still have an open mind. If we can get assurance of a global resolution, the president might do it for the benefit of the country.”

Asked to define a “global resolution,” the former mayor replied: “That means the president’s out.”

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