President Donald Trump lashes out at plenty of perceived enemies driving the Russia investigation.
In a Saturday television interview, Trump dubbed the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, a “bad guy,” and blamed former President Barack Obama for doing “nothing” about Russia. In a Feb. 17 series of tweets, he hammered the FBI, “the Dirty Dossier” and the “fake news media.”
Notably absent from his outbursts: special counsel Robert Mueller.
While Trump and many of his surrogates raise sharp doubts about other officials at the FBI and the Justice Department, the president holds his tongue about the man who leads the investigation into alleged ties between the Kremlin and his 2016 campaign.
That is no accident, according to interviews with several Trump advisers and members of his legal team, who see little gain in going after Mueller now — especially as Trump’s lawyers try to negotiate the terms of a possible Mueller interview with the president.
“I studiously avoid talking about the special counsel’s office,” said Jay Sekulow, a Trump attorney and conservative talk radio host who isn’t shy about critiquing the federal Russia investigation more broadly. “I’m trying to deal with the issues surrounding it. But not it.”
There’s little question that Trump harbors deep frustration toward Mueller. In private the president has complained that the special counsel — appointed last May to take over an FBI probe launched in mid-2016 — has major conflicts of interest. Trump even pressed his top White House lawyer to have Mueller fired just weeks after he assumed the job. And some Trump allies accuse Mueller of conducting a “witch hunt,” as Fox News host Sean Hannity put it in January.
But Trump has shown notable public restraint when it comes to Mueller. Even last summer, around the time he tried to force Mueller out, Trump told Fox News that his inquisitor was “an honorable man.” In a December interview with the New York Times, Trump said he expected that Mueller was “going to be fair” to him — a far cry from his regular claims that the Russia investigation is an effort by Democrats and bureaucrats to destroy his presidency.
Trump has also controlled his impulsive tweeting when it comes to the man with perhaps more power over his fate than any other.
At least 30 times since Mueller took over last May, Trump has gone after former FBI director James Comey, whose firing led to the special counsel’s appointment. Trump also has tweeted critically about the FBI’s then-deputy director, Andrew McCabe, its former general counsel, James Baker, and Peter Strzok, an FBI agent reassigned from Mueller’s team after the disclosure of text messages in which he expressed anti-Trump views.
Yet Trump has never tweeted about Mueller himself.
“It’s not in their interest right now to poke the bear,” said Zac Petkanas, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide and founder of a group tracking the Russia investigation, Defend the Republic. “I think that calculation changes on a dime the second they feel they don’t need anything from him and all they have is something to lose.”
Trump’s lawyers are still in talks with Mueller’s office about whether, when, and how the special counsel might personally interview the president. Some Trump advisers argue he would be foolish to sit down for an open-ended session with the seasoned prosecutor and are urging the president’s attorneys to try and limit the scope of Mueller’s questions and even answer some of them in writing.
There are other forces at play too. Mueller is a Republican, a respected Vietnam War veteran and former FBI chief appointed to that job by President George W. Bush.
A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Monday found 58 percent of registered voters with a lot or some trust in Mueller’s probe, which contrasted with 57 percent who said they had little or no trust in the president’s denials about the significance of the Russia investigation.
“I don’t think people perceive Robert Mueller as partisan,” said Christopher Ruddy, CEO of the conservative website Newsmax.
Ruddy, a Trump friend and member of the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida, said he agreed with Trump that Mueller will be fair. But he also warned that the special counsel’s work could end up harming the Trump presidency.
“He’s doing the job of a prosecutor,” Ruddy said. “It’s like asking a heart surgeon not to do heart surgery.”
Some of Trump’s most combative associates and supporters also seem to be sparing Mueller from their anger and claims of anti-Trump bias. The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has largely left the special counsel alone, even as he blasts the likes of Schiff and Comey. Mueller is also mostly absent from the Twitter feed of Michael Flynn Jr., the outspoken adult son of the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty in December for lying to the FBI.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even praised the special counsel for his indictment earlier this month against 13 Russians accused of manipulating the 2016 election. “Mueller’s doing exactly the right thing,” Gingrich told Fox News last week.
Like Sekulow, Trump’s other lawyers have also avoided criticizing Mueller. Trump personal attorney John Dowd has spoken in positive terms about his interactions with Mueller — repeatedly stressing his claim that Trump and his staff have been highly cooperative with the special counsel. Rather than paint Mueller as hell-bent to bring Trump down, White House lawyer Ty Cobb has repeatedly (and mistakenly) predicted that Mueller would soon wrap up his investigation by clearing Trump.
In his moments of private anger at Mueller, Trump has offered several complaints. He has reportedly groused over an alleged dispute Mueller had with his Northern Virginia golf club over membership fees when Mueller left the club in 2011. A spokesman for the special counsel told the Washington Post there was no dispute.
Trump has also suggested Mueller couldn’t be fair because he previously worked at the same law firm as one of the lawyers for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And Trump has noted that he interviewed Mueller to replace Comey as FBI director last spring but didn’t offer him the job. (Mueller associates say he did not really covet the job, which he’d already held from 2001 to 2013.)
In a rare occasion where he has criticized Mueller in public, Trump called it “bothersome” in a June Fox News interview that the special counsel is “very, very good friends” with Comey. (Sources close to both men said that was not an accurate portrayal of their relationship.) Even then, Trump added that he hoped Mueller’s investigation would reach “an honorable conclusion.”
Despite Trump’s play-nice approach, some of his partisans are happy to assail Mueller in public.
Hannity opened a January episode of his show charging improper FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign and calling for Mueller to step down. “I have a message tonight for the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Your witch hunt is now over. Time to close the doors,” Hannity said.
Appearing on Hannity’s program earlier this month, former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka echoed the notion that Mueller can’t fairly investigate the president because he’d been considered last year for the FBI post.
“He failed. He didn’t get the interview,” Gorka said. “Don’t you think he’s got an agenda? Absolutely. This is revenge for Robert Mueller.”
Trump, a regular Fox viewer who often tweets quotes directly from the network’s guests and hosts in his defense, did not post either of those comments.