Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign has a credibility problem. At least, that’s what we’re being told with ever-increasing agitation by those with an investment in the probe’s conclusions.
Exhibit A has to be the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on Monday, in which the paper issued yet another shot across Mueller’s bow. The paper’s editors have already demanded Robert Mueller’s resignation because they are discomfited by the idea that the former FBI director had and might maintain a relationship with James Comey. Now, with bad faith presumed on Mueller’s part, the Journal appears to assume that pro-Comey (and, therefore, presumably anti-Trump) bias has tainted the special counsel’s every move.
That conclusion now has new evidence to support it in the form of the revelation that former probe officer and FBI agent Peter Strozk was released from the probe after it was discovered that he was exchanging anti-Trump text messages with his mistress. This summer, Strozk was moved off the Mueller probe, cut off from any counter-intelligence work, and dumped into the FBI’s purgatorial human resources department—a clue that suggested Strozk had run afoul of the Bureau’s standards of acceptable conduct.
The full extent of Strozk’s influence on the Mueller probe is unknown, but he was dismissed in July from an investigation that began in mid-May, so his influence was likely limited. That has not satisfied Mueller’s critics, who were moved to paroxysms on Monday by the revelation that Strozk was not just a key investigator on the Clinton-email scandal case but responsible for the wording in Comey’s July 2016 speech accusing Clinton of being “extremely careless.” Originally, the speech used the phrase “grossly negligent” to describe Hillary Clinton’s actions—a locution that describes prosecutable behavior.
Mueller’s critics suggest that these revelations compromise the entire probe, but that’s hardly obvious. If the FBI was not going to recommend the prosecution of Clinton, it was only prudent to strip from Comey’s confused and contradictory speech any language that would usually accompany an indictment. Whatever you think of the decision not to prosecute Clinton—and conservatives are justified in considering it a travesty of justice—it’s not clear what that has to do with the Mueller probe’s conduct. The Journal essentially confessed that their central objection to the Mueller probe’s conduct is tied up in their antipathy toward Comey’s FBI when they note that Strozk’s anti-Trump mistress was an FBI lawyer who worked for Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Furthermore, the Journal reminded its readers, McCabe’s wife once ran for political office with the support of Clinton’s allies… That’s it. Draw your own conclusions.
The editorial implies that Strozk’s removal from the probe for misconduct is sufficient indictment of the entire special counsel’s office because this information was not publicly revealed for months. Here, the paper issues a Festivus-worthy litany of grievances that muddles their argument: The FBI has not been quick to share information regarding the surveillance of Trump campaign officials with Congress. No one knows the extent to which the so-called Steele Dossier prompted James Comey to open that investigation in the first place. Finally, Mueller’s probe has been similarly unresponsive to congressional inquiries.
That last point alone is cause for a valid objection, but it’s also entirely explicable. Historically, the Department of Justice is reluctant to provide a leaky Congress with investigative files involving ongoing criminal investigations, even if those records are subpoenaed. Mueller’s probe has now criminally charged three former Trump campaign officials and the president’s former national security adviser, so withholding records from congressional investigators is not illogical. When political actors claim that those involved with this probe could be engaged in a cover-up if they fail to comply with congressional requests for certain documents, they’re making demands with which Mueller’s office cannot comply and for relatively banal reasons.
While the Journal’s editorialists heap scorn on the Mueller probe for supposedly abandoning its credibility, they evince no similar irritation over the much more demonstrable sacrifice of integrity by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. The Journal observed that Nunes is “understandably furious” over the revelations involving Strozk, but it is the Journal that should be furious with Nunes. He allowed himself to be used by the White House to corroborate Donald Trump’s claims that his offices had been spied on by the Obama-era FBI and then misled reporters about where that information came from. This mistake led Nunes to recuse himself from any investigation into the abuses he allegedly uncovered.
Similarly, it was the Trump administration’s ill-considered decision to retain James Comey despite his mishandling of the Clinton scandal–only to dismiss him when it was the Trump campaign in the dock–that led to the special counsel’s appointment in the first place. The president and the administration he leads are responsible for the scrutiny that so chafes their supporters. Veiled efforts to attack Robert Mueller’s credibility based on James Comey’s failings reek of desperation. If Mueller’s critics are as incensed over the conduct of the Obama-era FBI as they claim, they might display as much concern for the misconduct of the Republicans who have made the truth that much harder to uncover.
The Journal is joining an increasingly animated crowd of skeptical pundits who blend their justified antipathy toward the behavior of the Obama-era FBI with criticism of the Mueller probe. If they want to see justice done and Donald Trump exonerated, as they insist he will be, they should not be so actively trying to muddy the waters. If the Mueller probe eventually oversteps its remit, the probe’s critics would do well to be cautious stewards of their credibility so that valid charge will find a receptive audience. Conflating Mueller’s actions with Comey’s, confusing the Trump Justice Department with Obama’s, and issuing primal screams over the miscarriage that was the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s misconduct at State doesn’t do justice any favors. Unfortunately, the demands of justice and political imperatives aren’t always aligned.