To President Trump and His Surrogates: Big Mistake to Attack Mueller’s Motives

by Lanny Davis – 7/25/17

I hear President Trump and his White House strategists referring to the “Clinton model” when attacking the political motives of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and of some members of his prosecutor team. They seem to be referring to Clinton defenders in 1999 such as myself, who often criticized on TV then Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for his political association with right-wing, anti-Clinton zealots, which was true.

But the Trump team is making a mistake. It won’t work. And could rebound against them.

I learned that lesson the hard way from a very wise man – Senator John McCain – a man whose courage President Trump once mocked because McCain got caught and became a POW when he was shot down over North Vietnam.

As I have written before, sometime in 1999, I was in the Green Room at CNN, where guests gather before going on the set. I was scheduled to appear in defense of President Clinton regarding the investigation by then Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

I saw Senator McCain in the Green Room, also scheduled to appear. I had never met him and was a great admirer. I introduced myself, holding out my hand to shake his. He wouldn’t shake my hand. He just said to me, “I don’t approve of the way you are attacking Mr. Starr’s motives. You can challenge his judgment, but do not attack his character.”

I was startled. But then I realized, he’s right. Attacking motives might appeal to our pro-Clinton political base. But it wouldn’t change the minds of those who were still open-minded. When I did my interview, I said, with Senator McCain’s comment in mind: “I don’t question Mr. Starr’s motives, but I do question his judgment.”

The reaction after the program (in the pre-Twitter age, from telephone calls – imagine that!) was positive from many who were still undecided about the validity of Starr’s investigation.

But President Trump’s style — to attack critics personally and demonize them — seems to be driving the strategy to attack Mr. Mueller personally. For example, President Trump sent a number of vitriolic Tweets over the weekend. The only person he avoided attacking was Arizona Republican Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged Senator McCain in the 2016 Republican primary. Ward called on Senator McCain to resign due to his medical condition. Trump’s silence about Ward’s despicable and shameful comment is deafening.

As for tracking the “Clinton model,” the Trump White House and surrogates must first understand the substantial difference between the credentials of Robert Mueller and Mr. Starr. Mr. Mueller is widely respected across the political divide – as a professional, experienced prosecutor, a former United States Attorney, a former F.B.I. Director. Mr. Starr had no prosecutorial experience at all. He seemed to have allowed over-zealous, experienced prosecutors who worked for him to cause him to make poor judgments.

However, it is fair game for Mr. Trump’s legal team to question Mr. Mueller’s judgment regarding an expansion of the scope of his investigation that is arguably not relevant to the assignment of investigating possible collusion with the pro-Trump/anti-Clinton Russian government meddling in the presidential campaign – meddling directed by Putin and confirmed unanimously by the entire U.S. Intelligence Community. However, financial transactions by Mr. Trump, his companies, or his family, for example, possible outstanding loans from Russian banks, would clearly be relevant to the collusion investigation. If true, they would show leverage of Russian officials over Mr. Trump and-or his companies and family.

Attacking Mr. Mueller’s and his team’s political motives may please the Trump supporters, which all polls show constitute 35%-40% of the country, a small minority. But it won’t persuade those in the middle who are troubled by evidence of at least interest in collusion by his son Donald Jr. when he held the June 9, 2016 meeting with someone identified in an email as a Russian government attorney who was said to have “incriminating” information on Hillary Clinton.

If the president is innocent, he could clear the air by publishing his tax returns, which would reveal all these transactions if they occurred. Then again, if he is innocent, why would he have Tweeted this past Saturday that the president has “complete power” to pardon?

That sends the opposite message.

Doesn’t it?

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Lanny Davis is a partner in the law firm of Davis Goldberg Galper and the strategic communications firm, Trident DMG, specializing in crisis management. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98.

To read the column on The Hill, click here.

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