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Trump's attacks on Mueller raise political risks for Republicans

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A White House spokesperson insisted Monday that President Donald Trump’s public attacks on the integrity and credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team do not indicate an intent to fire Mueller, despite calls from his attorney and allies to shut down the 10-month-old investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"There are no conversations or discussions about removing Mr. Mueller," Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters on Air Force One en route to New Hampshire.

Trump seemingly attacked the investigation for the third straight day Monday, tweeting, “A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!”

John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, told the Daily Beast Saturday that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should end Mueller’s investigation, which he claimed was “manufactured” by fired FBI Director James Comey and based on “fraudulent and corrupt” evidence.

Trump himself followed that up later Saturday, tweeting that Mueller’s probe “should never have been started.” In another tweet, he claimed Mueller’s team is stacked with “hardened Democrats” and asked, “Does anyone think this is fair?”

This left congressional Republicans and White House officials facing questions about whether they agree with the president and what they would do if he tries to fire Mueller.

“In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the Administration, the White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller,” White House attorney Ty Cobb said in a statement Sunday night, attempting to douse the furor.

The push to shut down Mueller’s investigation comes as Republicans look anxiously toward the midterm elections, hoping to stave off Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress.

According to a George Washington University poll released Monday, 57 percent of voters say the findings of the investigation will be extremely, very, or somewhat important to their vote in 2018, including more than 60 percent of independents. About four in ten voters said it will not matter at all.

“It’s not top of the agenda,” said Michael Cornfield, an associate professor and research director at GW’s Center for Political Management.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak noted that chatter about Russia did not help Democrats in special elections last year and he has not seen much reason to believe it will be more damaging to Republicans this year.

“You can’t make a case that it’s helpful, but I don’t know how hurtful it is,” he said.

There is an opportunity cost factor with the media focused on the Russia probe instead of headlines that could help GOP candidates like good economic news, lower taxes, and progress in negotiations with North Korea.

“As long as it’s sort of hanging around there, it’s certainly something that’s going to get attention on cable news,” Mackowiak said.

Democrats will likely use the probe to bash GOP candidates who embrace Trump, much as Trump used the FBI investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2016 election. According to Republican strategist David Payne, there is a rising frustration among Republicans as investigations fail to find incriminating evidence against Trump that could galvanize the GOP base as well.

“That impatience could be a motivating factor for Republican voters…impatience with Democrats who overplay their hand and use it to club Republicans,” Payne said.

Whether Mueller finishes his work before November or not, many respondents have already drawn their own conclusions. In the GW poll, a plurality, 39 percent, believed officials in Trump’s campaign committed crimes or actively assisted Russian efforts, up six points from a previous survey. About one-third said Trump’s campaign staff behaved normally.

“I think we’re still in the middle of a detection story and people are flexible enough to accept a range of possible outcomes,” Cornfield said, “but the only one that would really matter is if Trump himself was implicated.”

If Mueller were to end his investigation today without finding any wrongdoing by Trump’s campaign, Payne expects many Democrats would dismiss that. Similarly, many Trump supporters believe he can do no wrong. However, people in the middle who want the investigation to proceed are still persuadable.

“The fringe thirds, I think their minds are made up. It’s a kneejerk, instinctive judgment,” he said.

The president’s latest tweets followed a tumultuous week in which House Intelligence Committee Republicans announced that they completed their investigation of Russian interference, media reports revealed Mueller’s team hassubpoenaed Trump’s business, and the former deputy director of the FBI was fired for alleged dishonesty in an investigation of the bureau’s activities surrounding the 2016 election.

Intelligence Committee Republicans released a one-page summary of their upcoming report stating that they found no evidence of collusion or coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Democrats on the committee have accused Republicans of shutting down the probe prematurely.

The New York Times reported that the special counsel’s office recently subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records, but the paper did not report which documents they sought. Trump has suggested in the past that Mueller investigating his business dealings could cross a “red line” with him.

Late Friday, the Justice Department announced that Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, would be fired for “lack of candor” in an inspector general’s probe. McCabe stepped down weeks ago amid reports that the inspector general’s report would accuse him of misleading investigators about leaks to the media regarding a Clinton Foundation investigation, but he was set to formally retire Sunday.

Trump has long advocated publicly for McCabe’s firing based his unsubstantiated belief that McCabe’s objectivity was tainted by donations to his wife’s 2015 Virginia state Senate campaign by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is an ally of the Clintons. Though the allegations that led to McCabe’s dismissal were unrelated to that issue, Trump promptly claimed vindication.

“The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation?” he tweeted Saturday.

The president’s tweets misstated some facts about the investigation. Though Trump asserted there was “no crime,” Mueller has indicted 13 Russians for their efforts to influence the election. Three former Trump campaign staffers have pleaded guilty to crimes unrelated to their campaign work, and his former campaign chairman is awaiting trial for money laundering uncovered during the probe.

Most of the attorneys known to be serving on Mueller’s team do have a history of donating to Democratic candidates, but Trump has also previously donated to Democrats. Former federal prosecutor Juliet Sorensen, now director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University, called the claims of political bias and conflicts of interest “a total red herring” because investigators are sworn to impartiality.

“I would say first of all, Robert Mueller is a lifelong Republican, James Comey is a lifelong Republican, Andrew McCabe is a lifelong Republican,” she said, “but more importantly, that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the investigation is being conducted with the requisite integrity.”

Trump dismisses the Russia probe as a “WITCH HUNT” on a fairly regular basis, but this weekend’s tweets were noteworthy as the first time he has attacked Mueller by name. Some Republicans and Trump supporters share the president’s belief that the Mueller investigation and the FBI are irreparably tainted by political bias.

“We’ve had now revelation after revelation of improper bias both in the FBI, Justice Department and the Mueller operation targeting President Trump and evidently protecting Hillary Clinton,” said Tom Fitton, president of conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, in a video posted on Twitter Monday.

However, even some who often defend Trump’s controversial statements have balked at his attacks on the special counsel.

"As the Speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job," a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement Sunday.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., defended the McCabe firing, but he blasted Trump attorney Dowd for demanding an end to the investigation.

"If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it," he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urged Trump not to fire Mueller, warning of dire political consequences.

"If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency,” Graham told CNN.

According to Cornfield, Republicans who publicly oppose Trump on this issue are taking a political risk.

“Most Republican base voters are still with Trump and they don’t see this as a big deal,” he said. “Democrats are opposed to Trump for 9 million reasons and this is one of them, but it’s not a swing issue.”

Mackowiak is unsure how likely Trump moving to fire Mueller actually is, but it could be “the bridge too far” for some Republican lawmakers even if it does not turn Republican base voters against the president.

“He has a strong hold over the party right now and there are advantages and disadvantages to that,” he said.

Republican lawmakers do not want to face that dilemma, according to Payne, and that is why they are publicly warning the president not to commit what he called “an unforced political error” by trying to fire Mueller. On the other hand, he noted the perception that Trump is fighting back against a biased investigation could provide benefits too.

“Trump’s core voter base perhaps become most motivated when he can point to specific grievances,” Payne said.

Despite Trump’s attacks, public opinion of the FBI and Robert Mueller has not shifted much in recent months. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday found 48 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of the FBI, down 5 points from January but about even with where it was in December. It was the highest net positive rating of any political figure or institution included in the poll.

While Trump allies are pressing Mueller to wrap up his probe, there has been little public indication that his team is nearing the end of its work.

“Where we are now does not seem to me to be an endgame,” Sorensen said.

Recent reports indicate investigative work and grand jury testimony are still ongoing. It is difficult to ascertain the significance of the Trump Organization subpoena without more information, but the fact that Mueller’s team is still collecting documents suggests they have quite a bit more to do.

“At a minimum, the grand jury and Mueller and his team will need time to sift through that,” Sorensen said.

The White House has chafed at the prospect of a special counsel investigation lingering over the president’s second year in office, but for an investigation of this magnitude, the ten months Mueller’s team has been working is not that long.

“I know it seems long because the public is hanging on every piece of info they can access,” Sorensen said, “but for a criminal investigation that is both document-intensive and witness-intensive, where it appears some witnesses are reluctant to testify, where there is the competing pressure of the congressional investigations, and where the special counsel is extremely cautious, the investigation to me appears to be proceeding at all deliberate speed.”

According to Payne, the frequency of new revelations in the investigation and their rapid spread on social media amplifies feelings on both sides, contributing to a perhaps skewed perception that it is dragging on endlessly.

“Given the speed of our information and news consumption in the modern age, it makes this investigation seem longer…. It seems a constant presence to us,” he said.

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