OPINION | Trump making grave mistake attacking Mueller's motives
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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 some members of his prosecution 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 it could rebound against them.


I learned that lesson the hard way from a very wise man — Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLive coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge MORE (R-Ariz.) — a man whose courage President Trump once mocked because McCain got caught and became a prisoner of war 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 the Starr investigation.  

Sen. McCain was there too, 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 Sen. 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 Mueller personally. For example, President Trump sent a number of vitriolic Tweets over the weekend. Notably, one person Trump did NOT attack was Arizona Republican Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the 2016 Republican primary. A few days ago, Ward called on Senator McCain to resign due to his brain cancer diagnosis. 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 Ken Starr. Mueller is widely respected across the political divide — as a professional, experienced prosecutor, a former United States Attorney, a former FBI director. 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.    

It is fair game, however, for President Trump’s legal team to question Mueller’s judgment about expanding of the scope of his investigation beyond the assignment of probing possible collusion with the pro-Trump/anti-Clinton Russian government meddling in the presidential campaign — an operation directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and confirmed unanimously by the entire U.S. intelligence community.

On the other hand, financial transactions by President Trump, his companies, or his family, involving 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 Trump and-or his companies and family.

Attacking Mueller’s and his team’s political motives may please the Trump supporters, who amount to about 35-40 percent 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 ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page files defamation lawsuit against DNC Dems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE.

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?  

Lanny Davis served as special counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and co-founded the law firm, Davis Goldberg Galper, and the affiliated strategic communications and public affairs firm, Trident DMG, which specializes in crisis management and reputation enhancement. His Clinton White House memoir published in 1999 was titled: “Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes from My White House Education.”

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