Vladimir Putin couldn’t resist some sardonic trolling as the embattled legacy of the 2016 election sowed fresh mistrust and discord in Washington and the US President’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., got caught in the fallout.
“Despite the exotic nature of the work of special counsel Mueller, we must give him credit,” Putin said during a visit from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Sochi on the Black Sea. Emulating President Donald Trump’s own language, the architect of Russia’s election meddling operation said Mueller’s report showed claims of collusion were “nonsense,” appearing to be only too happy to add to the fog of controversy churning over the former FBI director’s conclusions.
Trump claims he was “exonerated” by Mueller. But while the special counsel did not establish a conspiracy between Trump’s team and Russia, he did unveil multiple contacts between the two sides in his report. And while deciding not to reach a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice, he piled up evidence that more than 800 former federal prosecutors said could lead to a prosecution of Trump were he not president.
Some 5,500 miles west of Putin, the still bitter reverberations of that divisive election tightened their corrosive grip over the institutions of US political life. Taking a break from worrying about a trade war with China and a possible slide to war with Iran, Washington plunged back into disputes raging in the aftermath of the Mueller endgame. Trump’s team and Democrats are now fighting a war of attrition over Trump’s personal finances, campaign and presidency that was born from the Russia intrigue and will further strain national unity.
Which is presumably fine by Putin, since Mueller concluded Russia’s nefarious efforts were designed to “provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.” In one of Tuesday’s most striking developments, sources told CNN that Attorney General William Barr is now working with the CIA and FBI leadership to probe the origins of FBI surveillance against Trump’s campaign.
An investigation into the same area by the Justice Department’s Inspector General is also under way. Trump improbably claimed he did not order Barr to open the probe, despite repeatedly pouncing on a long campaign by conservative media to turn the power of the law on FBI investigators.
“But I think it’s a great thing that he did it. I saw it last night and they want to look at how that whole hoax got started. You know what? I am so proud of our attorney general, that he is looking into it. I think it’s great,” Trump said.
The President’s comment will do nothing to ease the impression among Democrats that Barr, who rolled out the Mueller report in a favorable manner for Trump, is acting less as America’s top law enforcement officer than the President’s personal attorney. Trump has burned through the hierarchy of top Justice Department officials at an alarming rate, and there were signs Tuesday that FBI Director Christopher Wray could be on thin ice.
Trump was objected to Wray’s refusal to adopt Barr’s term — “spying” — for warrant approved surveillance of his campaign. “I certainly didn’t understand that answer. I thought it was a ridiculous answer,” Trump told reporters.