President Donald Trump wants the Russia investigation to go away. The problem is, as he has seen firsthand, there’s no easy way to make that happen.
Trump’s attorney general disappointed him by recusing himself from the whole ordeal. The firing of the FBI director, which Trump openly linked to easing the pressure of “this Russia thing,” led to the appointment of a special counsel who has expanded the probe.
Trump moved this week to reshuffle his legal and communications teams in response to the ever-widening Russia investigation. But whether the changes will result in a meaningful shift in strategy remains to be seen.
The harsh reality is that when it comes to responding to the Russia probe that has swallowed the first six months of his administration, Trump and his advisers do not have many options — and the ones they have carry their own big political risks.
Here’s a rundown of Trump’s no-win options:
Undermine the investigation
The president’s attorneys say they’ve been cooperating with Mueller, preserving documents he’s requested out of both the White House and the 2016 campaign.
But it’s been an entirely different story in public.
Since early June, Trump and his surrogates have been engaged in an intense campaign to discredit Mueller. During a Fox interview last month, the president raised questions about the special counsel’s ”very bothersome” relationship with the ousted FBI Director James Comey, calling them “very very good friends” – a claim that sources close to both Comey and Mueller dispute — in an effort to establish a conflict of interest.
Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week in the Oval Office, Trump posited that Mueller wasn’t the right person to be investigating him because he’d interviewed for the FBI job as Comey’s replacement, arguing that it, too, compromised Mueller.
“There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point,” Trump said.
The Washington Post on Thursday reported that Trump and his team are working to discredit Mueller’s expanding staff of veteran Justice Department attorneys and white-collar criminal experts, by highlighting potential conflicts and past political activity. On Friday, senior strategist Kellyanne Conway took issue with Democratic campaign contributions some of Mueller’s staff have made to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. ”It is relevant information for people to have,” she said on Fox & Friends.
Attacking Mueller may be a keen strategy for Trump to score political points with his base: Forty percent of Republican voters said in a recent Fox News poll they don’t have much confidence in Mueller.
Former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said that while it could help bolster support for Trump, it likely will not affect the outcome of the investigation.
“Mueller and his team I guarantee aren’t going to be the least bit swayed by anything Trump or Kellyanne Conway say about them,” Zeidenberg said. “It’s just background noise. It may not even be noise.”
The idea has been kicking around Washington for months: Trump, so dissatisfied with the notion of the Russia investigation, could keep replace his Justice Department leadership if they don’t follow his order to get rid of the special counsel — much as President Richard Nixon did in the Saturday Night Massacre.
Trump this week sidestepped the idea in his New York Times interview. When asked directly if he’d consider firing Mueller, the president replied, “I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
But Trump and his lawyers also have gone out of their way to point to ways they think the Mueller probe is straying into territory they don’t welcome, like his finances and business dealings, leaving open the door for the president to attempt to remove Mueller.
John Dowd, now Trump’s lead outside attorney, took issue on Thursday with the suggestion in a Bloomberg story that Mueller’s investigation had broad enough sweep to look into Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, as well as the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a South Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008. Those issues, Dowd said, were “in my view well beyond the mandate of the Special counsel; are unrelated to the election of 2016 or any alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and most importantly, are well beyond any Statute of Limitation imposed by the United States Code.”
Legal experts have disputed the characterization that Mueller doesn’t have the authority to examine the president’s finances or to examine past behavior. The special counsel’s probe, in fact, is likely to cover everything from how Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s stolen emails ended up on WikiLeaks to the Russian-connected social media accounts that blasted out fake news stories into the feeds of critical swing state voters.
Also fair game: Trump’s business history, especially if it shows connections with Russia that would explain why the Kremlin was interfering with the presidential election. And while states of limitations on criminal cases typically are five years, when presented as part of an ongoing conspiracy prosecutors often do have leeway to go back into history and use that material as evidence. “These things can go back 20 years,” Zeidenberg said. “He wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t investigate that.”
But firing Mueller wouldn’t end the investigation into Trump. Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent, wrote in POLITICO Magazine on Friday that FBI agents “working on any leads would continue to pursue them out of the relevant FBI field offices or FBI headquarters until the counterintelligence and criminal questions are resolved.”
And Trump could pay a political price. Mueller is, after all, a registered Republican who was appointed to lead the FBI in 2001 by President George W. Bush. “I think the best advice would be to let Robert Mueller do his job,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters in June. Across the Capitol, Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 GOP primary rival of Trump’s, told reporters this week it would be a “mistake” if Trump canned Mueller.
There’s no disputing that Trump has the power to pardon anyone he wants over the Russia probe (except perhaps himself, there’s a legal debate there), even before they’re even charged with a crime. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a finalist to be Trump’s vice president, reminded listeners on the “Diane Rehm Show” about this back in December when the then-president elect’s biggest obstacle looked to be whether he’d face questions about hiring family members and the constitutional challenges surrounding conflicts of interest with his businesses. ““It’s a totally open power,” he said.
The notion gained renewed attention on Thursday when the Washington Post, citing a White House adviser, reported Trump had expressed “a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority” with respect to the Russia probe.
Sensing the political blowback, Trump attorneys have raced to squash the pardon talk. “There is nothing going on on pardons, research – nothing,” Dowd told BuzzFeed. “Pardons are not being discussed and are not on the table,” his colleague, Jay Sekulow, told CBS.
Pardons also wouldn’t be an end game for the Russia probes, and they could end up making matters worse for Trump himself. “Mueller can take all those pardoned people and put them in front of a grand jury and squeeze then and find out what’s going on,” Zeidenberg said. “You’d have the question of whether these pardons are part of a scheme to obstruct justice.”
Excusing staff of potential criminal penalties is also no end run around Congress, which under the Constitution still maintains its authority to remove a president. While the political hurdles would be high – a majority of House members and two-thirds of the Senate for conviction – the political repercussions could be enough to start a wave, especially if this all goes down before the 2018 mid-term elections.
“I think it’d encourage the impeachment movement,” said Robert Bennett, a white-collar lawyer who represented President Bill Clinton during the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals. “People who would not support it now might very well support it then.”