By Jonathan Easley - 06-16-17 06:02 AM EDT
President Trump's legal team and political allies have launched a preemptive strike against special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump's backers are furious about a story that appeared Wednesday in the Washington Post, in which five anonymous sources alleged that the president is the target of an obstruction of justice investigation for allegedly trying to bury an FBI probe into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The timing of that story, which was published on Trump's birthday and a week after the White House believed the president had moved beyond allegations of election collusion with Russia, was viewed by Trump's allies as evidence that the story was planted by law enforcement officials to ensure a shadow of suspicion would remain.
It is unclear whether the Post story was leaked by the special counsel, the FBI, former FBI director James Comey and his allies, or witnesses that have been contacted by those law enforcement agencies as part of the investigation.
Many legal experts suspect the leaks didn't come from the special counsel or from current or former FBI officials, but rather from those who have been reached for questioning as part of the probe - or their staffers.
"The Special Counsel's Office has undertaken stringent controls to prohibit unauthorized disclosures that deal severely with any member who engages in this conduct," Mueller spokesman Peter Carr told The Hill.
That hasn't been enough to stop a barrage of attacks against the special counsel and Mueller, the lead investigator, who otherwise enjoys the confidence of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Trump has chimed in on Twitter, saying Wednesday that "conflicted people" are running the "single greatest witch hunt in American political history." Aside from Trump's tweets, though, the White House is taking a backseat in the offensive, referring all questions about the special counsel to the president's outside lawyers.
Instead, Trump's legal team, the Republican National Committee, conservative heavyweights and the right-wing mediasphere are picking up the slack, launching a tandem effort to cast the special counsel as hopelessly corrupt.
"This is the most coordinated communications effort on behalf of the president that we've seen in a long time," said Barry Bennett, a former adviser to Trump. "They need it - it's tough to fight nameless, faceless quotes from people purposefully twisting these stories on you."
Trump's lead outside counsel, Mark Kasowitz responded to the Post story by decrying the "illegal" leaks, which he said had come directly from the FBI.
Jay Sekulow, a new member of Trump's legal team, went on Fox News Channel to say that the leaks may have come from inside Mueller's special counsel. Sekulow asked why the FBI is "not sending agents to people's houses" to put an end to it.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee, which chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has described as the "political arm" of the White House, has led the effort to cast doubt on the special counsel investigation.
The RNC's rapid response team sent a flurry of emails to reporters on Thursday highlighting comments from legal experts who said there is no case for obstruction of justice. They also circulated talking points for surrogates to respond specifically to the Post story.
The message: The "illegal" leaks are the only crime that has been committed and they came directly from the FBI or the special counsel's office as part of "an effort to undermine the president."
The RNC says there is no case for obstruction charges, but if an obstruction investigation exists, it's because the special counsel is trying to "save face" after the collusion probe didn't go anywhere.
Rather than wasting resources on investigating Trump, the GOP says the special counsel must look into whether former attorney general Loretta Lynch meddled with the FBI's criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. Comey testified that Lynch told him to downplay the seriousness of the FBI's email server investigation.
Those GOP talking points have been picked up by the right-wing pundits, like Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity help and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who have both called for an end to the special counsel investigation.
Gingrich accused Mueller of stocking his team with Democratic political donors and took to Twitter to call him the "tip of the Deep State spear." Mueller and Comey are "best friends," Hannity said, and viewers should not believe the stories they leak to the news media.v
"These special counsels have a way of going off the rails," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Az.) told The Hill. "And the ostensible purpose of the special counsel has now been essentially vitiated and everybody knows that. And so they've got to try to find something to do. In this case, it was almost the intent from the beginning to try to create something out of nothing. And it doesn't work in physics, but in politics it seems to be pretty effective."
Legal experts are alarmed by the leaks.
"Leaks by any investigation are deplorable and raise questions as to whether there is an agenda," former attorney general Bill Barr told The Hill.
But most doubt the leaks are illegal.
Rather, Trump's critics are accusing the administration's allies of muddying the waters in an effort to tarnish the special counsel's investigation.
In a series of tweets, Joyce White Vance, who worked as a U.S. attorney in the Obama administration, said "not every piece of information that comes to light during an investigation is a leak."
"Witnesses, even those subpoenaed to the grand jury, can talk about being summoned/subpoenaed and even the substance of their testimony," she said. "This is one of the most common ways news of the existence of an investigation becomes public... Leaks are harmful and often illegal. But don't confuse lawful disclosure with illegal leaking."
Trump's allies are undertaking a risky strategy by attacking Mueller one year into an FBI investigation, said Bill Jeffress, a prominent Washington criminal lawyer who was on the defense team for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's leak case during the George W. Bush administration.
"There is no question these leaks give ammunition to critics to question the credibility and nonpartisan nature of the special counsel," Jeffress said. "But I do wonder why they've adopted this strategy of attacking Mueller, who I know to be a straight shooter. He's made no findings and if they're confident he's going to clear Trump in all of this, I think it'd be better to just push him to bring a speedy end to it all."
-- Cristina Marcos contributed.