Americans familiar with and admiring of the biography of Robert Mueller – son of a navy officer, Vietnam Bronze Star, terrorism prosecutor, FBI director for 12 years post-9/11 – might be discouraged by the turn public opinion has taken against his current work.
While Americans who do not have a favorable view of Mueller’s special counsel investigation are still in the minority, their numbers are growing.
The share of US voters who view Mueller unfavorably rose from 23% in July 2017 to 36% in June 2018, according to recent polling, while support for his “Russia investigation” mission dropped from 73% in May 2017 to 54% in April 2016.
Unmistakably responsible for Mueller’s declining stock is Donald Trump, who has steadily railed on Twitter against the “criminal deep state” and its “witch-hunt” designed, Trump claims, to avenge the election loss of Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s Republican supporters have eagerly swallowed that message, with 85% of self-identified Republicans approving or strongly approving of Trump’s job performance and only 18% expressing a favorable view of Mueller.
Trump has argued that Mueller’s investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and his campaign has cost the United States too much money and lasted too long – arguments that voters have repeated in focus groups.
But Mueller’s expenditures in his first year of about $17m are a fraction of the annual budget of a large district court, and his 13-month-long investigation has yielded more evidence of more crimes – and indeed more guilty pleas by more criminals – so far than any recent comparable federal investigation.
The independent counsel investigation by Kenneth Starr, which began as an inquiry into an Arkansas real estate deal, culminated in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton after four years. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald won conviction of the former Dick Cheney aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby 39 months after his appointment as special counsel.
Mueller was appointed special counsel on 17 May 2017. In that time he has indicted 22 criminal defendants and garnered five guilty pleas, including from Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; Richard Gates III, a former deputy to campaign chairman Paul Manafort; and George Papadopoulos, a former Trump foreign policy aide.
Some on the left, including David Corn of Mother Jones, have argued that a focus on the minutiae of the potential Mueller investigation has distracted the public from the big picture – allegations that the Trump campaign tried to cooperate with Moscow as the Russians attacked a US election, and then provided cover for the Russian attack by denying to the public that it had happened.
Trump has repeatedly sought to blur the fact of the Russian attack on the US election, asserting that someone else may have been responsible and denying his own campaign’s contacts with Russians, as well as praising Putin, failing to challenge him in meetings and, most recently, inviting him to rejoin a reconstituted G8.
Trump’s coziness with the Russian leader appears not to have been lost on voters. In Politico/Morning Consult polling, voters thought that the Trump campaign had worked with Russia to influence the outcome of the election by a margin of 43 to 39.
Trump’s self-interest in torpedoing the Mueller inquiry is self-evident. Mueller has indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman, extracted guilty pleas from three of his former aides, and could end up filing criminal charges against a member or members of the president’s family.
Mueller could end up filing a report that establishes the president as unfit for office in the eyes of a majority of Americans.
Here’s what Mueller has charged so far:
Michael Flynn, former national security adviser – making false statements to investigators. Flynn is cooperating with prosecutors.
Richard Gates III, former campaign and White House aide – conspiracy to defraud the United States and making false statements. Gates is cooperating with prosecutors.
George Papadopoulos, former campaign aide – making false statements to investigators. Papadopoulos is cooperating with investigators.
Alex van der Zwaan, Dutch lawyer – making false statements to investigators about his work with Gates. He was deported last week after serving a 30-day sentence on his conviction.
Richard Pinedo of California – identity fraud for selling dummy bank accounts to Russians agents.
Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman – obstruction of justice, money laundering, tax fraud, failure to register as a foreign agent and making false statements.
Manafort is due in court on Friday to face new charges, that he tampered with witnesses who could testify in the case against him on charges including money laundering, tax fraud and failure to register as a foreign agent.
In addition, Mueller has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three companies with Russian ties in connection with the Russian plot to tamper with the 2016 US presidential election. In doing so, Mueller unveiled features of the Russian plot that have received relatively little attention, such as a cross-country espionage tour taken by two Russian defendants using stolen identities “including stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York to gather intelligence”.