Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian ties is moving forward — but not if the White House can help it.
According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration is currently seeking to “limit or undercut” the Russia investigation by seeking out potential conflicts of interest and questioning the scope of Mueller’s investigation, sparking fears that the president could use these reasons to fire Mueller as special counsel.
In an interview Friday on Fox and Friends, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway painted a picture of what those attempts to discredit Mueller will look like, as the former campaign manager disparaged the so-called “witch hunt” against President Donald Trump and characterized criticisms about the investigation as a call for “transparency and accountability.”
Conflicts of interest
The main source of criticism the Trump administration has leveled against the Mueller investigation are the supposed “conflicts of interest” of his legal team. Several of the lawyers aiding in the investigation have made sizable donations to Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, and attorney Jeannie Rhee previously represented the Clinton Foundation during a 2015 racketeering lawsuit.
Additionally, the New York Times noted, the White House is criticizing Mueller himself, suggesting an interview he had with Trump for the FBI director position as a potential conflict of interest. Trump supporters have also attempted to characterize Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey as close friends, despite associates reporting that the two are “not particularly close.”
Conway and the Fox hosts drew on these alleged conflicts of interest during Conway’s interview, as the adviser said Americans have a right to know about the “political motivations” of Mueller’s team.
“These weren’t minor donations ... these were significant donations by members of that team. They clearly wanted the other person to win,” Conway said. “Now, whether that prejudices them one way or the other in the investigation remains to be seen, but it is relevant information for people to have.”
Though the Trump administration is reportedly attempting to use these conflicts of interest as a legal basis to fire Mueller — or pressure members of his team to recuse themselves, as the Fox hosts suggested during Conway’s interview — these political donations likely do not actually constitute a legal conflict of interest.
According to the Government Ethics Outline for the U.S. Department of Justice, employees would have a conflict of interest if they participated in an investigation in which they have a “personal or political relationship” with the subject or someone affected by the outcome. A “political relationship,” however, is defined as “a close identification with an elected official, candidate, political party or campaign organization arising from service as a principal adviser or official” — not a political donation.
“Bottom line is, I don’t see how donations are relevant,” Richard Painter, the ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, told the Washington Post. “I’ve never heard of a single case where a prosecutor has been removed because of a political donation.”
During her interview, Conway would not specifically label the political donations as being a legitimate conflict of interest, but rather suggested that the public has a right to know about any potential conflicts.
‘It’s relevant that people know what the motivations are. And that is not an attack on the team, that is ‘what’s fair is fair,’” Conway said.
Though the Trump administration has been criticized for prohibiting the recording of White House press briefings, cutting off public access to the White House visitor logs and their longstanding decision to withhold Trump’s tax returns, Conway characterized the decision to speak out about the alleged conflicts of interest as being in line with the administration’s commitment to “transparency and accountability.”
“President Trump went to Washington to disrupt and expose the system, just to blow that secret door off its hinges and have more accountability and transparency in the system that thrives in the opposite. So the same applies here,” Conway said.
“Chutes and ladders”
The other main charge that the Trump administration has leveled against the Russia investigation — which Conway repeated during her Friday interview — is that the scope of the investigation has gotten too broad.
Specifically, the Trump administration is objecting to Mueller’s probe into the president’s finances and business transactions, including his long-unseen tax returns, according to the Washington Post. Many have speculated that the returns could reveal previously undisclosed financial ties between Trump and Russia.
“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told the Washington Post. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”
During her Fox and Friends interview, Conway criticized the expanding scope of the investigation as distracting from the investigation’s stated purpose of investigating Russian interference in the election — which she also denied was true in the first place, saying, “We were promised that what Hillary Clinton says is true, where’s the evidence of that? That interference affected the electoral outcome. Hillary Clinton affected the electoral outcome.
“So where is this going? And is America comfortable with that, with the taxpayers funding this, with this going off of all types of chutes and ladders?” Conway added.
Though the criticisms have been largely directed at Mueller’s investigation, Conway also took aim at Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Mark Warner of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, respectively, saying the two have “been on TV more than they’ve been on these hearings.”
“So the hearings, the investigations, have stalled, because where is this going?” Conway asked. “If you’re going to open up every chute and ladder, every Pandora’s box, when the president’s made this very clear that this is a witch hunt.”
The Russia investigation is a “sideshow,” Conway claims
Conway also decried the Russia investigation as being a mere distraction from the White House’s work in her Fox interview, calling the Mueller probe a “sideshow” in comparison to “what [Trump is] actually doing in the White House.”
Trump, Conway said on Friday, had an “incredible week,” citing health care reform, the White House’s “Made in America” week and a recent Pentagon briefing — although, according to Conway, Americans would never know based on the Russian-focused media.
“[Americans] look up and just see ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,’ while this president’s focused on ‘America, America, America,’” Conway said.