In recent days, the Trump administration allies have been attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and related issues.
On Saturday, Trump escalated things considerably. He launched a frontal attack on Mueller from his “transition team,” an entity that does not really exist. The president and his aides are now in office, so the “transition team” is really Trump and other top administration officials.
We learned the background from a report in Axios. Mueller has obtained of “tens of thousands of emails” from the Trump transition team — spanning topics from potential appointments to foreign policy. Mueller got a hold of the emails through the General Services Administration, a federal agency that helps presidential transitions and hosts the email system offering them “ptt.gov” email addresses (short for Presidential Transition Team). Trump’s operation first learned this after prosecutors used the emails in their questioning of witnesses, according to Axios.
We learned all of this because the Trump transition’s team lawyer, Kory Langhofer, wrote a seven-page letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee claiming that the GSA acted illegally by releasing the emails. Langhofer argues that doing so was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Yet in the same letter, Langhofer also calls for Congress to amend the law “to protect future presidential transitions from having their private materials misappropriated by government agencies.”
Fox News, which has already been regularly attacking Mueller, escalated its rhetoric in response to the report. On Saturday night, host Jesse Watters called the investigation a “coup” against Trump. Kellyanne Conway echoed his views on the show, above a giant chyron that asked “Coup in America?”
There’s just one problem with Langhofer’s argument. Trump transition officials (again, people now in the administration) were warned early on that GSA materials “would not be held back in any law enforcement” investigation. GSA Deputy Counsel Lenny Loewentritt told BuzzFeed that the GSA never said that requests for records would be funneled through the administration — a claim Langhofer makes in his letter to the congressional committees. In fact, transition members were told that the materials “would not be held back in any law enforcement” requests.
As BuzzFeed reports:
Loewentritt read to BuzzFeed News a series of agreements that anyone had to agree to when using GSA materials during the transition, including that there could be monitoring and auditing of devices and that, “Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed.”
Loewentritt told BuzzFeed News that the GSA initially “suggested a warrant or subpoena” for the materials, but that the Special Counsel’s Office determined the letter route was sufficient.
As to whether the Trump campaign should have been informed of the request, Loewentritt said, “That’s between the Special Counsel and the transition team.”
Mueller’s office also maintains that all emails were obtained either voluntarily or through the appropriate criminal process.
“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, said in a statement to BuzzFeed.
There has been a coordinated attack against Mueller for some time now. ThinkProgress recently reported that a pro-Trump super PAC called Great America Alliance is running a television ad asking viewers to demand the resignation of four members of Mueller’s team, who it calls the “Clinton four.” A staffer for the organization also told ThinkProgress that the PAC is “calling for [Mueller] to be fired as well the four.”
Fox News personalities, several of whom are close to the president, as well as congressional Republicans have also been escalating the attack on Mueller, calling his investigation a partisan attack on Trump. On Saturday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said on Fox News that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has agreed to subpoena officials at the FBI and Justice Department for political bias against Trump — another move geared toward discrediting Mueller’s investigation.
The bubble that is being created by conservative media and politicians can have serious repercussions. “Conservative media personalities know Trump hates the investigation and wants it shut down,” Nicole Hemmer, the author of Messengers of the Right, told CNN about the feedback loop that is being created. “They bash the investigation and Mueller, and when Trump sees that happening (say, on ‘Fox & Friends’) it reinforces his belief that the investigation is illegitimate and that he should do something to end it. The likely consequence is that this increases the odds of Trump attempting to fire Mueller.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the emails hosted on GSA were “ppt.gov.” They are actually “ptt.gov” email addresses.