Over the past two days there have been some rather substantial developments in Special Counsel Mueller's investigation into alleged ties between President Trump and the Kremlin. First came the news yesterday that Mueller planned to expand his probe to review Trump's personal business transactions, an announcement which sent stocks tumbling on the day (see: Mueller Expands Probe Into Trump Business Transactions: Dollar Tumbles, Stocks Slammed). Meanwhile, just this morning we learn that the Trump legal team has been shaken up with Kasowitz out (not terribly surprising after his recent email meltdown) and Corrallo resigning (see Trump Legal Shake Up: Kasowitz Out As Personal Attorney, Corrallo Resigns).
Now, as the New York Times points out, Trump may be preparing a counter-offensive aimed at identifying potential conflicts of interest among the people hired by Mueller in order to force recusals.
President Trump’s lawyers and aides are scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation — or even build a case to fire Mr. Mueller or get some members of his team recused, according to three people with knowledge of the research effort.
The search for potential conflicts is wide-ranging. It includes scrutinizing donations to Democratic candidates, investigators’ past clients and Mr. Mueller’s relationship with James B. Comey, whose firing as F.B.I. director is part of the special counsel’s investigation.
The effort to investigate the investigators is another sign of a looming showdown between Mr. Trump and Mr. Mueller, who has assembled a team of high-powered prosecutors and agents to examine whether any of Mr. Trump’s advisers aided Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.
To seek a recusal, Trump’s lawyers can argue their case to Mueller or his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Justice Department has explicit rules about what constitutes a conflict of interest. Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have “a personal or political relationship” with the subject of the case. Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a “political relationship.”
Of course, these developments come as Mueller’s team has allegedly requested documents from the Internal Revenue Service related to Paul Manafort's criminal tax investigation that had been opened long before the Trump campaign began. Manafort was never charged in that case. Federal investigators have also contacted Deutsche Bank about Trump’s accounts, and the bank is expecting to provide information to Mueller.
Of course, Newt Gingrich, a former 'informal advisor' to President Trump, was among the first to point out the potential conflicts of interest among the folks being hired to fill Mueller's team.
"Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring.check fec reports. Time to rethink."
Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring.check fec reports. Time to rethink.— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) June 12, 2017
As The Hill noted around the same time, several of Mueller's early, notable hires have all been contributors to Hillary's and/or Obama's previous campaigns and Jeannie Rhee actually represented the Clinton Foundation.
Michael Dreeben, who serves as the Justice Department’s deputy solicitor general, is working on a part-time basis for Mueller, The Washington Post reported Friday.
Dreeben donated $1,000 dollars to Hillary Clinton’s Senate political action committee (PAC), Friends of Hillary, while she ran for public office in New York. Dreeben did so while he served as the deputy solicitor general at the Justice Department.
Jeannie Rhee, another member of Mueller’s team, donated $5,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign PAC Hillary for America.
Andrew Weissmann, who serves in a top post within the Justice Department’s fraud practice, is the most senior lawyer on the special counsel team, Bloomberg reported. He served as the FBI’s general counsel and the assistant director to Mueller when the special counsel was FBI director.
Before he worked at the FBI or Justice Department, Weissman worked at the law firm Jenner & Block LLP, during which he donated six times to political action committees for Obama in 2008 for a total of $4,700.
James Quarles, who served as an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, has donated to over a dozen Democratic PACs since the late 1980s. He was also identified by the Washington Post as a member of Mueller's team.
Starting in 1987, Quarles donated to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’s presidential PAC, Dukakis for President. Since then, he has also contributed in 1999 to Sen. Al Gore’s run for the presidency, then-Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential bid in 2005, Obama’s presidential PAC in 2008 and 2012, and Clinton’s presidential pac Hillary for America in 2016.
Meanwhile, Trump himself, in a move that surprised a few people on his own legal team, seemed to ramp up the pressure on Mueller alleging to the New York Times that the mere fact that he was interviewing to replace Comey as FBI Director at the time of his appointment as Special Counsel created a conflict of interest.
Mr. Trump’s advisers are split on how far to go in challenging the independence of Mr. Mueller, a retired F.B.I. director and one of the most respected figures in law enforcement. Some advisers have warned that dismissing Mr. Mueller would create a legal and political mess.
Nevertheless, Mr. Trump has kept up the attacks on him. In his interview with The Times, which caught members of his legal team by surprise, he focused on the fact that Mr. Mueller had interviewed to replace Mr. Comey as the F.B.I. director just a day before Mr. Mueller was appointed special prosecutor, saying that the interview could create a conflict.
“He was sitting in that chair,” Mr. Trump said during the Oval Office interview. “He was up here, and he wanted the job.” Mr. Trump did not explain how the interview created a conflict of interest.
Mr. Trump also said Mr. Mueller would be going outside his mandate if he begins investigating matters unrelated to Russia, like the president’s personal finances. Mr. Trump repeatedly declined to say what he might do if Mr. Mueller appeared to exceed that mandate. But his comments to The Times represented a clear message to Mr. Mueller.
“The president’s making clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said during a news briefing on Thursday.
Of course, we suspect that any effort to limit the 'scope' of the Special Counsel's investigation will only result in a redoubling of Mueller's efforts...the only question is how far Trump is willing to push in his 'counteroffensive.'