Even by 2018 standards of political gaslighting, which are robust, dropping hints that Mueller should be disqualified from Russiagate without explaining why is top-notch. Watch, then read on:
CNN: Trump tweeted that Mueller has "a nasty business relationship” w/him. What did he mean?
GIULIANI: I can't tell you
C: If you can't talk about it, why would Trump tweet it?
G: Ask Mueller
C: Why should Mueller have to explain Trump's tweets?
G: 'Cause he has the conflict pic.twitter.com/LQFaUbN207
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 30, 2018
The NYT reported in January that last year, when Trump nearly fired Mueller, he named three potential conflicts of interest to his advisors as possible justifications. (Just as no one believes Comey was fired for mishandling the Clinton email investigation, no one would have believed that Mueller was canned due to ethical reasons. In both cases Trump was aiming at his chief Russiagate antagonist.) One was the fact that Mueller recently worked for the same law firm that Jared Kushner’s attorneys, Jamie Gorelick and Abbe Lowell, worked for. That’s a serious conflict potentially if Mueller worked on business related to Kushner while at the firm or had access to confidential information provided to him. The DOJ’s ethics team looked at it before he was named special counsel, though, and gave him the green light. If this is the conflict Trump has in mind then he’ll be undermining the judgment of his own Justice Department. Which wouldn’t be unusual, but still.
The second supposed conflict is the fact that Mueller interviewed with Trump for the position of FBI director after Comey was fired but before he was named special counsel. I think there could be a potential conflict there with more information — for instance, is there reason to think Mueller coveted the position and might hold a grudge against Trump for being passed over? Seems unlikely given that he’d had that job for 12 years before Comey took over. Is there reason to think Trump said something about Russiagate during their interview for the FBI job that Mueller might now try to use against him as special counsel? Also possible but unlikely. Why would Trump have said something damaging to a guy whom he didn’t know and hadn’t hired yet? If that’s the claim POTUS is making, he should make it explicitly.
In any case, neither one of those hypothetical conflicts is the one that Giuliani’s hinting at. He refers to a “dispute,” which Trump himself also hinted at this morning:
That brings us to the third conflict named in the NYT’s January story: The … golf-dues matter, which has been kicked around for a full year now as potentially disqualifying. Has Bob Mueller been running a vendetta against Trump for the past seven years over a golf course? And somehow that vendetta only manifested itself after he was appointed Russiagate special counsel in 2017?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller relinquished his membership at a golf course owned by President Donald Trump ‘without dispute’ [in 2011], his office said amid a new effort to muddy the investigator…
Membership fees at Trump golf courses around the country vary. They are $14,000 and $25,000 at another, according to a McClatchy report, and far higher at Mar-a-lago, where Trump jets frequently during the winter and keeps a residence.
Those who choose to walk away do not get their money back. ‘No portion of an Initiation Fee will be refundable in connection with a member’s resignation,” said a membership plan at a Trump National Course in Colts Neck, New Jersey obtained by the paper.
It’s unclear how much the amount in dispute was in Mueller’s case. It’s also unclear (to me at least) whether the dispute was over initiation fees, which can be exorbitant, or over monthly dues, which are much smaller sums. WaPo followed up on the story in January and said it was about dues: “The dispute was hardly a dispute at all. According to a person familiar with the matter, Mueller had sent a letter requesting a dues refund in accordance with normal club practice and never heard back.” That makes it sounds like Mueller relinquished his membership in the middle of the month and then asked for reimbursement of the monthly amount he had already paid. If so, we’d be talking about a small amount, too small to plausibly justify someone holding a grudge for the better part of a decade over it. If we’re talking about the initiation fee instead, that would be a much larger amount of money.
But why would Mueller think he was entitled to a refund of the initiation fee? The term itself implies that it’s nonrefundable.
In the end, you come back to Alisyn Camerota’s question. If Trump believes there’s a serious financial “dispute” that disqualifies Mueller on conflict grounds, why won’t he just specify it? Is it because his lawyers think it would sound nutty to try to shift the Russiagate debate towards a debate over golf dues?