WASHINGTON ― As the special counsel investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election draws closer to President Donald Trump’s inner circle, the president’s supporters have launched an aggressive effort to undermine Robert Mueller and the legitimacy of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, painting the FBI as a hotbed of liberal activists bent on taking Trump down.
The extraordinary attacks on the FBI and of Mueller ― a well-respected former law enforcement leader who is also a registered Republican ― appear intended to set the stage for Trump to fire the special counsel, whose team has already secured charges or guilty pleas from four Trump associates.
Trump denied on Sunday that he planned to fire Mueller, just as he’d said he wouldn’t fire James Comey, the former FBI director Trump dismissed in May. But Trump did tell reporters that it was “quite sad” that Mueller’s team had obtained his transition team’s emails, which were hosted on a government server.
“Not looking good. It’s not looking good,” Trump said. “My people are very upset about it. I can’t imagine there’s anything on ’em, frankly, because as we said, there’s no collusion. There’s no collusion whatsoever. A lot of lawyers thought that was pretty sad.”
Trump’s transition team had claimed in a letter to members of Congress that the General Services Administration, which hosted email services for the transition team, had “unlawfully produced... private materials, including privileged communications” to the Mueller team.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel, said in a statement to HuffPost and other outlets that the special counsel team had “secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process” when they obtained emails in the course of a criminal investigation.
The revelation that Mueller had access to the Trump transition team’s emails was only the latest fuel for the GOP and conservative attacks on the special counsel and the bureau. In recent weeks, opponents of the investigation have focused on text messages that two former members of the special counsel team exchanged about Trump during the campaign, before Trump was elected.
The attacks on Mueller and the FBI have gotten more extreme in recent days. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News commentator who recently met with Trump, called the special counsel investigation a “criminal cabal” and the FBI a “crime family” and suggested that top ranking bureau officials should not only be fired, but taken “out in cuffs.”
Fox News host Jesse Watters hosted a segment calling the investigation “crocked from the jump,” suggesting to viewers that “we have a coup on our hands in America.”
Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the clip.
And Fox News hosted a segment with White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, which featured the chyron “A COUP IN AMERICA?”
The latest round of attacks came after a House Judiciary Committee hearing with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last week in which Republicans repeatedly accused the bureau of partisanship over the 2016 text messages between two FBI investigators that disparaged Trump (as well as Democrats like Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders).
FBI agents are allowed to privately express political views, and the texts only came to light because the two officials were allegedly having an affair and they exchanged the messages on their work phones, which made them easy for DOJ officials to access.
Officials in the Justice Department’s press office allowed some reporters on the DOJ beat to view the text messages ahead of Rosenstein’s testimony last week, which raised alarms for some Democrats who viewed it as an attempt to undermine the special counsel probe (from which Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused).
In a statement on Friday, the Justice Department Inspector General’s office ― which is leading the probe of the two FBI officials ― said it was not consulted about the release of the texts to the media, but had told officials they did not object to providing the text messages to Congress.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.