On Tuesday’s MSNBC Live with Katy Tur, former George W. Bush White House Ethics Lawyer Richard Painter was brought on as a guest to discuss growing concerns among journalists and some within the Trump administration that there are serious problems with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian “collusion.” In spite of multiple reports from outlets across the political spectrum calling various aspects of both Mueller’s investigation and the special counsel’s previous conduct as head of the FBI into question, Painter insisted that “there’s no way you could attack the credibility of Robert Mueller.”
More troublingly, he cast everyone who has raised legitimate concerns about Mueller as “Mafia”-esque criminals. This was very odd to witness on a network whose commentators regularly castigate Trump as an authoritarian for criticizing press reports that reflect on him negatively.
Host Katy Tur set up Painter by asking him about how the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation will play out in the context of so many journalists questioning the special counsel’s credibility:
Richard, the investigation might go on, but there is a concerted effort to undercut its credibility. So, if Robert Mueller comes out and, and, and announces his conclusion and it is not in the favor of the President, there’s gonna be a lot of people out there who will say that this was not fair and that this was a witch hunt and that is was politically motivated. And they’ve got a lot of voices out there that are willing to, to back them up on that. What happens, what happens when Robert Mueller comes out and, and makes his announcement?
Although Tur initially cut Painter off for arguing that attacking Mueller’s integrity was impossible, he stuck to his guns:
PAINTER: Well, let's see what he has to say. Uh, but there’s no way you could attack the credibility of Robert Mueller.
KATY TUR: [interrupting] But they are.
PAINTER: Uh, he’s -- they can say anything they want. Hey, yeah.
TUR: [talking over Painter] They are, and the fact of the matter is, Richard, they are.
[talking on her own] And there are people in this country, lots of people in this country, who want to believe that and are willing to believe that.
PAINTER: Yeah, if they wanna believe it. It just makes absolutely no sense. He is a, really a traditional Republican. Many of us in the Republican Party have admired Robert Mueller for years. Even though we say it was nonpartisan, he’s been closer to Republicans than Democrats over the years. He has impeccable credentials. He was in the Marines. He’s an experienced prosecutor. He’s head of the FBI under both Presidents Bush and Obama. And there’s just no way you could attack the credibility, the honesty, integrity, or professionalism of Robert Mueller. And anybody tries doing that, it’s gonna be very transparent what their motives are. Of course people being prosecuted or being investigated don't like the investigators, don’t like the prosecutors. The Mafia doesn't like prosecutors either. But, for Fox News to be weighing in that way and making up a bunch of stories, and the latest story is about some ethics approval letter that Robert Mueller got – it's all a lot of nonsense, and they're just doing that as a smoke screen to cover up for the fact that Robert Mueller is moving in on some targets who may be very high up in this administration. And we'll wait and see what he has to say.
This is an extremely dishonest portrayal of the journalism criticizing Mueller and his current work looking at the Trump administration.
The L.A. Times, well-known for its left-wing editorial slant, has been one of the major outlets to criticize Mueller’s supposedly “impeccable credentials.” In November, the paper pointed out how, as head of the FBI, Mueller played a key role in messing up one of the most important investigations of his career. Namely, he insisted on going after an innocent man as the perpetrator of the anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and injured more than a dozen others shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. The L.A. Times described Mueller’s role in the case this way [emphasis mine]:
A handful of letters laced with powdered anthrax killed five people and sickened 17 others. The government closed congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court and postal facilities as the country braced for further biological terrorism.
But Mueller’s FBI struggled for nearly seven years to determine who was responsible — even as he personally managed the case.
“The director was always the leader of the anthrax investigation, period,” said Michael Mason, former head of the FBI’s Washington field office.
The FBI focused on Steven J. Hatfill, a virologist at the Army’s laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md. In January 2003, Mueller assured congressional leaders in a closed-door briefing that bloodhounds had traced anthrax from the attacks to Hatfill.
But Hatfill had no experience handling anthrax. Nor did he have access to anthrax stored at Ft. Detrick or elsewhere. Years later, the FBI would reject the bloodhound evidence as unreliable.
After media leaks fingered Hatfill, he sued the FBI and the Justice Department on privacy grounds. In June 2008, the government agreed to pay Hatfill about $5.8 million.
Two months later, on Aug. 6, Mueller summoned senior investigators and prosecutors on the anthrax case to his seventh-floor office. The FBI would hold a news conference that afternoon, and he wanted to recap the case’s stunning denouement.
Bruce E. Ivins, an Army microbiologist at Ft. Detrick who specialized in handling anthrax, had committed suicide after his lawyers informed him he was about to be charged with murder for the letter attacks.
Evidence showed Ivins had created and held custody of a batch of anthrax traced by DNA to each of the killings. He had spent hours alone in specially equipped labs just before each batch of letters was mailed.
Mueller let others hold the news conference. Some aides who met Mueller that day think he was reluctant to publicly address the missteps with Hatfill, the bloodhounds and the long delay in focusing on Ivins.
“I think he was personally embarrassed,” said one. “I would assess him as someone that can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.”
In addition to other reporting from Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others calling Mueller and his team’s competence and partiality into question, that final assessment doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the special counsel’s infallibility. It certainly belies Painter’s suggestion that Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow’s call for an investigation into Mueller is some Mafia-esque ploy to subvert justice.
Tur did not call out Painter for his ridiculous comparison, preferring to move on to discussing today’s Alabama Senate race.