Robert Mueller's special counsel team is -- at least theoretically -- immune from political pressure, yet I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they were beginning to feel a little heat. Not only have a number of Republicans openly called for the Russia probe to be wrapped up in fairly short order; the Democratic ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee has effectively said something similar. As a consistent supporter of the investigation and someone who has faith in Mueller's professionalism and integrity, I've also said this work should be limited to his original (and crucial) charge, and that it would be reasonable to expect his official findings about Russia's election interference to be published prior to, well, the next national election. I made that very point on Special Report recently:
.@guypbenson on the Mueller probe: "If the point is to prevent the Russians and other hostile powers from influencing our elections again in the future, as they attempted to do in 2016, it would be nice to know what happened before the next election." #SpecialReport pic.twitter.com/79cvozFJEg— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 31, 2018
I've said and written repeatedly that Mueller should be permitted to complete his task without political meddling, but with a potentially-explosive Inspector General report scheduled to drop within hours (it's on a separate 2016 election subject, but could deliver a black eye to the Department of Justice and the FBI, whose Russia probe Mueller basically inherited last year), the national mood seems to be shifting:
Voters interviewed for the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll also have changed direction on whether they think the Mueller investigation has been on the up and up. In the latest survey, 40 percent of voters said it had been handled unfairly, compared to early February when 34 percent said the probe wasn’t being handled fairly. The percentage saying the investigation was being done fairly remained unchanged from February at 38 percent.
A thin plurality now says Mueller hasn't been handled fairly, and Allahpundit notes that this sort of erosion is not confined to a single polling series: "Other polls around the same time also showed public interest beginning to fade. Monmouth, for instance, asked Americans in July 2017 whether they thought the Russiagate probe should continue and found 62 percent in favor versus 33 percent opposed. In April of this year, the split had slipped to 54/43." Not only that, within the Politico data, Mueller isn't merely losing ground with Republican-leaning voters: "Mueller’s personal unfavorability has also hit new highs among Democrats and independents at 24 and 33 percent, respectively." AP also flags a nugget within the Politico survey showing that GOP voters are split on whether Trump should, um, pardon himself. Setting that question aside, in addition to changing public attitudes about how his probe is being conducted, Mueller is starting to hear more of his Republican defenders openly urge his office to bring this saga to a close sooner rather than later. Patience is wearing thin:
A growing number of Republicans in senior leadership positions, who all profess that Mueller should have no artificial deadline for his Russia influence probe, have also begun to sprinkle in another suggestion: It’s time to wrap it up. The message is a nod to the gravitational pull of President Donald Trump and his most vocal allies in Congress, a band of hardcore Mueller critics who have made moves to choke off his funding and encourage him to wrap up immediately. Though most senior GOP lawmakers say Mueller should let the facts dictate his probe, their willingness to embrace the hurry-up language is a sign of increasing pressure and division among Republicans about the party's posture toward the investigation as it enters a perilous phase for Trump and his allies. "Wrap it up" has become the message of choice for lawmakers trying to straddle the line. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent the message shortly after Thune spoke to Fox News, telling CNN that “I’d like to see them wrap it up.” And the GOP’s Missouri Senate nominee, Josh Hawley, followed suit last week in urging Mueller to “wrap it up and present his evidence.”
Historically, other investigations have dragged on for longer than Mueller's current status (even if you include the pre-Mueller portion of this probe), but the sensitive political nature of this one is unique and increasingly controversial. And as I mentioned above, if we want to avoid future electoral malfeasance from hostile powers -- and we absolutely should -- it would be most helpful to have a full and definitive account of what the Russians did last cycle, prior to the forthcoming election. I still maintain that Mueller's timetable should not be dictated by partisan or political considerations, but with the DOJ under fire, Rod Rosenstein facing mounting criticism, many Republicans (and some Democrats) chirping about winding things down, and the public growing weary, a savvy operator like Mueller may want to consider whether he's approaching a rubicon of diminishing returns in the realm of public relations and perception.