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The Desperate Spin of a Spiraling Presidency

Trump and his loyalists are trying to discredit Robert Mueller's investigation. They're raising greater suspicion instead.

Pool/Getty Images

As the old saying goes, nothing screams “clean hands” like repeatedly phoning up the FBI director for updates on your investigative status, asking him to publicly exonerate you, asking other intelligence chiefs to quash the FBI’s work, firing the FBI director, then attacking the prosecutor assigned to oversee the investigation that you wanted the fired FBI director to interrupt.

Having established his indisputable innocence with the above pattern of behavior, President Donald Trump is now peeved to be under investigation for obstructing justice regarding crimes that definitely did not happen.

Nobody likes to be investigated, powerful people least of all. But it is worth marveling at how quickly we reached this point, and how pathetic the organized pushback against the Trump investigation and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller has been.

These are not tendentious or subjective ways to describe Trump’s predicament, but rather inescapable consequences of things Trump has done to expose himself to legal jeopardy and deny his loyalists clean lines of defense against the bad news.

Trump’s case against the case against him is that it’s an endless fishing expedition, conducted by obscure but powerful anti-Trump partisans. The Republican National Committee’s more polished rendering of the complaint in Trump’s tweets is that the obstruction inquiry represents a “pivot,” which “shows that they have struck out on trying to prove collusion [with Russian intelligence] and are now trying to switch to another baseless charge.”

The standard they are trying to set is that the investigation should be terminated, but that if it must continue, then it should be conducted by Republican partisans.

The best way to tease out the weakness of the GOP’s objections is by way of comparison to the years that prosecutors spent digging into President Bill Clinton’s largely imagined crimes.

It’s true that Democrats in the ’90s, like Republicans today, endeavored to discredit investigations of the White House. It is also true that Clinton ultimately got in trouble for protesting too much. But the comparisons end there—not least because the impetus for today’s investigation is a plain-as-day effort by a foreign power to subvert a U.S. election on behalf of the candidate who actually won.

Before Republicans foisted independent counsel Kenneth Starr on the Clintons, the first family was the focus of an investigation by a DOJ special counsel named Robert Fiske. When Fiske essentially found no wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater, and affirmed that Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster had committed suicide rather than been murdered, the fact that he was a Republican carried no weight with Republicans in Congress. Fiske was ultimately booted by a three-judge panel on the grounds that he could be “perceived” as insufficiently independent.

Starr ended up taking over for Fiske and running amok precisely because he was a reliable partisan. By sheer coincidence, Starr’s investigation dragged on for the better part of Clinton’s two terms, caroming off in every conceivable direction after the Whitewater inquiry turned up bupkis. When it all came to a head years later, with the Lewinsky affair and the president’s effort to cover up his infidelity, Democrats sounded a lot like Republicans sound today.

Today, though, the criminal investigation of Donald Trump himself is perhaps one month old. Reporters only confirmed its existence two days ago, 144 days into his presdiency. The man leading it isn’t a partisan Democrat or even a Democratic career-lawyer type, but a Republican career-lawyer-type, Robert Mueller. To draw out the contrast further, Mueller didn’t stumble into his criminal investigation of Trump because his initial inquiry came up empty, but because the president (both publicly and in well-documented private encounters) has tried to stymie the underlying inquiry, which also continues.

Nobody knows this history better than Kellyanne Conway, who was a fixture in the low-cunning world of right-wing Clinton-era hijinks, and whose hyper-partisan husband, George, represented Clinton sexual-assault accuser Paula Jones and planted anti-Clinton stories in the conservative media. Her breezy shamelessness, and the more anguished shamelessness of her fellow Trump surrogates, shouldn’t fool anyone. The attempted undermining of the Mueller investigation has been no less deceitful than Trump’s late-campaign claim that Hillary Clinton started, and he ended, the birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. It is of a piece with the notion that Democrats shoved Obamacare down the country’s throat, while the Republican repeal effort has been a model of transparency.

Whatever the investigation turns up, it is curious that an innocent man, and his innocent party, would conduct themselves with such low integrity if indeed there were no wrongdoing for even a tenacious investigator to uncover.