By Nicholas Fandos
WASHINGTON – A growing campaign by President Trump's most ardent supporters to discredit the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and the law enforcement agencies assisting his investigation is opening new fissures in the Republican Party, with some lawmakers questioning the damage being done to federal law enforcement and to a political party that has long championed law and order.
A small but vocal group of conservative lawmakers, much of the conservative media and, at times, the president himself have launched a series of attacks to paint not only Mueller but institutions once considered sacrosanct to Republicans such as the FBI and Department of Justice as dangerously biased against Trump. One of them, Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., called on Tuesday for top FBI and Justice Department officials to be "purged."
Now some Republican lawmakers are speaking out, worried that Trump loyalists, hoping for short-term gain, could wind up staining the party, dampening morale at the FBI and Justice Department, and potentially recasting Democrats as the true friends of law enforcement for years to come.
Straddling both camps is Trump, who in an interview on Thursday with The New York Times lavished praise on Republican congressmen who have defended him from a "witch hunt" and expressed confidence that Mueller would "treat me fairly."
It is not uncommon for members of the president's own party to defend their leader against investigations. When President Bill Clinton was investigated and impeached in the 1990s, Clinton's associates and many left-leaning Democrats on Capitol Hill waged war on Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel.
But Republican moderates in both the House and Senate with little loyalty to Trump and a Republican cadre of former law enforcement officials fear that their colleagues have reacted to specific and credible concerns about the FBI with indiscriminate attacks.
"As an institution, we have to make it clear that we are dealing here with a scalpel not a sledgehammer," said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., who sits on the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees. "Because you can't have a situation where people say, 'Oh, you can't trust the FBI.' That creates a spirit of anarchy."
Of his fellow Republicans pressing a public case against the agencies, King said, "I think some of them have been too strong on that."
The effort to sow doubt about Mueller's team and the department that appointed him has gained steam since early December after Michael T. Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and cut a deal to cooperate with Mueller's inquiry.
The following day, The Times reported that Mueller had removed a top FBI agent during the summer over text messages expressing anti-Trump political views that he had exchanged with an agency lawyer. The news – and the Justice Department's release days later of many of the text messages – provided Republicans ammunition of a sort they had long lacked: Senior officials involved in both the investigation of the Trump campaign and of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server railing against the president in private.
Since then, Republicans who control key House committees have called top Justice and FBI officials to Capitol Hill for hourslong interviews in public and behind closed doors about the handling of the Clinton and Trump investigations. They have accused one of Mueller's top deputies of anti-Trump bias based on an email sent in early 2017 praising the acting attorney general for her decision not to defend Trump's first travel ban in court.
And they have pointed to the actions of another senior Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, as a predicate for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate political partisanship in the department's handling of the Trump-Russia investigation and its decision not to charge Clinton in the email case.
"The public trust in this whole thing is gone," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who has helped lead the charge, said during a tense Dec. 13 hearing with the Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
Trump himself has alternated between playing coach and cheerleader, repeatedly painting the Mueller and congressional investigations as a partisan attack and top FBI officials as Clinton loyalists. In the Thursday interview, he said Mueller's investigation made the country "look very bad."
He asserted 16 times that Mueller's inquiry would discover "no collusion" with the Russians, but suggested there was evidence the Democrats had teamed up with Russia to produce a dossier of opposition research on his campaign's contacts with Russia.
And while Trump's lawyers have maintained a cooperative posture with Mueller and investigators on Capitol Hill, he lavished praise on the Republican House members who have led the attacks on investigators.
"Great congressmen, in particular, some of the congressmen have been unbelievable in pointing out what a witch hunt the whole thing is," Trump said.
To some Republicans, the attacks have gone too far, and are not representative of rank-and-file Republicans in Congress.
"Most of my Republican colleagues feel as I do that we have confidence in law enforcement," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn., a moderate. "I don't know why that should change now that we have a Republican administration."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is helping to lead multiple investigations related to the department on Capitol Hill, said striking a middle position was viable – if unpopular in a political climate that rewards broadsides.
"It is not mutually exclusive to me to understand both the existence of an investigation and to be asking for more perspective on how an investigation began," he said.
Other Republicans have been less sanguine when it comes to the attack on law enforcement, and Mueller in particular.
"Those are political cheap shots that sound good on Fox News but in the real world are completely unfair to a guy who has given his life to serving this country," Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a former member of the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, said of the accusations of bias against Mueller's team. "It's good politically. It's good talking points."
Rooney, a member of the Intelligence Committee, and Dent said law enforcement officials should be punished for having political opinions only if they act on them.
"Everybody in government has a right to a political opinion," Dent said. "There might be people in the FBI and the Justice Department, too, who have favorable views of the president. Are they not able to conduct their jobs without bias?"
Senate Republicans, with few notable exceptions, have put forward much more muted criticisms of Mueller, centered mostly around his choice of deputies – several of whom have made donations to Democratic political candidates. Senators have largely avoided criticizing law enforcement agencies outright.
"From his reputation and everything I know about him, I remain convinced that when this is all said and done, Mueller is going to only pursue things that are true, and he will do it in a fair and balanced way," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told The News-Press, a Florida news site, on Friday. "I think the best thing that can happen for the president, for the country and for everyone is that he be allowed to complete his investigation as thoroughly and as completely as possible and that we allow the facts from that investigation to lead where they may."
The attacks have sent chills through at least some at the FBI, an agency that prides itself on rigorous adherence to the law and tends to attract right-leaning career employees. Katherine W. Schweit, a former senior FBI official who retired earlier this year, called the criticism "baseless" and said it put the agency's mission at risk.
"Undermining the FBI is not helping the United States protect its citizens," she said. "When people stop working with us, we have a bigger problem than politics. Sowing distrust undermines the integrity of the agents and analysts. This can ripple out to every other agency."
Democrats, for their part, have tried to ratchet up their defense of Mueller and federal law enforcement – positions typically claimed by Republicans. More than 170 House Democrats penned a letter of support last week, and on the Senate floor, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, urged his colleagues to set clear "red lines" that Trump must not cross.
Whether the role reversal could become something more permanent remains to be seen, but King said Republicans should be concerned.
"I don't know if the Democrats would ever assume the mantle, but it could certainly weaken the hold that Republicans do have on being supporters of law enforcement," he said.