WASHINGTON – Emboldened by special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are going on offense over the issue as he heads into next year’s campaign.
After Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s conclusions exonerated Trump on the question of collusion, White House aides and Trump surrogates came out swinging in an effort to discredit Democratic critics, the media and the Justice Department over the now-completed 22-month probe.
Trump described Mueller’s probe as an “illegal take-down that failed” and urged “somebody” to look into the origins of the collusion allegations. On Thursday, he will have a chance to tout the outcome and press his criticisms when he heads to Michigan for one of the first rallies of his reelection campaign.
“After all this politically commissioned investigation has put Trump associates through, it’s clear the bogus inquiry requires scrutiny,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide. “If there is no investigation to get to the bottom of this, there is no real justice in America at all.”
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Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said that both he and the president would continue to hammer Democrats and reporters who promoted what they regard as a bogus conspiracy theory of a conspiracy with Russia.
“I wish they would slow down one bit and say, ‘I’m sorry,'” Giuliani said. “We’re going to keep demanding that.”
Democrats disagreed with Trump’s claim of full vindication. The Mueller investigation did not “exonerate” the president of obstruction, although it did not conclude that he had done so, according to Barr’s four-page summary.
Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that after reviewing the report, they determined there was not enough evidence to establish obstruction of justice.
Democrats have demanded the full Mueller report and questioned whether political motivations played a role in Barr’s determination to clear Trump on obstruction of justice.
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Trump on offense
Combined with claims of vindication emanating ever more loudly from Trump’s orbit, some White House aides have criticized individual Democrats – most notably Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee – while others have called for additional investigations into how and why the Justice Department began its probe into Russia in the first place.
The strategy “is a bracketing attempt to extinguish any hope that congressional Democrats will continue to try to use this to damage the president over the next 18 months,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime GOP political strategist.
Trump allies have raised the prospect of an investigation into the Justice Department and contend that the president was the victim of a “witch hunt,” even though House Republicans spent months investigating similar questions and found no direct evidence the department’s conduct was motivated by politics.
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“What they should really be investigating is who started all this,” Giuliani said, echoing what has become a leading refrain for Trump surrogates on Monday. “This was a classic frame-up. It didn’t come out of thin air.”
Trump wants to “definitely find out how all this happened, so it won’t happen again,” Giuliani said. “He has said, publicly and privately, that this should not happen to a future president.”
As of yet, there has been no indication that the White House is weighing action to punish the FBI or to use exoneration on collusion to interfere with separate investigations into Trump’s business dealings that are being led by state and federal prosecutors in New York.
Pardon push back
Beyond using the Mueller conclusion as campaign fodder, Trump’s ability to punch back against the inquiry is limited, experts said. The president could fire Justice Department officials, including U.S. attorneys, but such acts carry new legal and political risks for the White House. Trump threatened to fire former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for months before finally forcing his resignation in November.
Trump could pardon some of the dozens of former associates who have been caught up in Mueller’s probe or ongoing investigations by federal prosecutors in New York, though neither Trump nor his aides have offered any indication he would do so. Neither Trump nor his aides have ruled out pardons at some point in the future.
“Haven’t thought about it,” Trump said Monday when asked about pardons.
Brian Kalt, a constitutional law professor and presidential pardon expert at the Michigan State University School of Law, said Trump has enormous discretion to grant pardons of those convicted of federal crimes. More problematic, Kalt said, would be any attempt to try to curtail federal investigations under way in New York.
Those investigations continue to threaten people close to the president, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., and longtime Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg. His former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who faces three years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and orchestrating illegal payments to women who have claimed to have had sex with Trump, is cooperating with prosecutors.
“He can fire the U.S. Attorney,” Kalt said, but “he can’t fire individual prosecutors in the office – they are civil servants, not presidential appointees.”
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University in Washington, said a president’s pardon authority “does not give Trump license to use his power as chief executive to hinder or stop investigations into his own alleged crimes in offices like the Southern District of New York.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., indicated Monday he intends to spearhead another review of the origins of the collusion narrative. That approach could let Trump continue to use the investigation as a campaign talking point while leaving the more risky work of attempting to prove political bias at the Justice Department to others.
Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wants to explore the justification for surveillance warrants against Carter Page, a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign that were based in part on a “dossier” of salacious material collected by former British intelligence worker Christopher Steele.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to fund Steele’s research.
Trump and other Republicans have focused on the fact that Steele’s controversial dossier alleging links between Russia and Trump’s campaign made up part of the evidence investigators used to obtain a wiretap on Page. A trove of FBI documents made public last year showed the FBI disclosed Steele’s motives when they requested the wiretap but nevertheless found the material credible.
Graham urged Trump to focus on an agenda for the country, rather than trying to settle a score.
“I’m going to look at the FISA abuse or the FISA warrant process, I’m going to do it working with Democrats, I hope,” Graham said. “And if I were you Mr. President, I would focus on what’s next for the country.”
Contributing: Bart Jansen, Michael Collins and Eliza Collins