Two months ago, talk like that from Bannon might have been written off by congressional Republicans as standard-issue bloviation from the former White House strategist and Trump campaign CEO. But since Bannon got into the Senate campaign game, two U.S. senators from the president’s own party have already decided not to run for re-election after Bannon threatened to back challengers in their respective GOP primary contests. Having already helped defeat the incumbent senator in the Alabama primary, Bannon’s fightin’ words carry a bit more weight than they might have before a theocratic, Constitution-flouting former state supreme court judge became the party’s candidate for the Yellowhammer State’s suddenly open seat.
Since the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and two other campaign members earlier this week, Capitol Hill has become a place with an edgy feel. Thing is, no one knows just exactly where that edge is. Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves stealthily and strategically in his investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and of the possibility that the Trump campaign may have been in cahoots with their candidate’s favorite dictator, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.
Republicans in Congress, particularly in the Senate, find themselves having to walk a line. That may account for Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley’s expressed appreciation of Mueller as a “very ethical person,” according to Politico—even as he urges the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the approval of a merger of the Russian company Rosatom with Canada-based Uranium One. At the time of the deal, it was estimated that Uranium One’s licensing rights represented 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity; The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has since said the figure is closer to 10 percent. (The uranium, designated for use in nuclear power plants, is barred from being exported, so it’s not as if Russia could rob the United States of its uranium stores.)
Any special counsel investigation of the Uranium One transaction could be the baldest attempt at Republican what-aboutism—a deflection technique by which one tries to conflate an opponent’s behavior with one’s own misdeeds. The opponent in question is, of course, Hillary Clinton, against whom President Donald J. Trump still appears to be running if, for nothing else, to satisfy his base and a very important pair of backers—billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebecca—who also happen to be the people behind Bannon. It was Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, working with Mercer money, that first introduced into the presidential campaign the notion that because, as secretary of state, Clinton was one of nine officials who sat on the board that approves such deals when they involve foreign entities, it must have been her idea, and she must have gotten something for her trouble from the Russians. It was GAI that first crafted that narrative in Peter Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash.
While some of the right’s loudest voices are calling for either Mueller’s firing or his resignation—most notably, The Wall Street Journal in an unsigned editorial—senators such as Grassley are looking at another way to skin the cat.
“I don’t know how you could improve things by interfering [in the Mueller investigation],” Grassley told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “The process just ought to go.” In fact, Grassley is so keen on special prosecutors that he took to Twitter on October 24 to call for appointing one in the Uranium One matter. For good measure, he took an oblique swipe at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation having to do with Russia and its agents. Grassley contends that Rosenstein himself is compromised for having prosecuted an official at a different Rosatom subsidiary, Tenex, for bribery—a prosecution that Grassley, at a recent oversight hearing of the Justice Department, suggested did not go far enough.
Whether that’s enough to placate Bannon and the Mercers is hard to tell. But one big surprise from the Mueller investigation so far is one that has a lot of people nervous. While the indictment of Manafort was expected, and that of Manafort business partner Rick Gates not a shocker, an indictment of campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that was unsealed after the two bigger fish were caught is causing serious agita, seeing as how Papadopoulos was named as a “proactive cooperator” who has been working with investigators for month. Mueller nailed Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI about the nature of his conversations with a U.K.-based professor who claimed to have links to the Kremlin and possible access to “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. Many are wondering if, while cooperating with investigators, Papadopoulos talked to former campaign mates while wearing a wire.
Bannon seems especially nervous. On October 30, the day the indictments were unsealed and Manafort and Gates turned themselves in, CNN’s Dana Bash reported that sources told her Bannon was urging Trump to do everything he could to slow down the Mueller probe, including withholding documents. Wonder what he’s got to worry about.