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Analysis: Mueller, Known for Being Above the Fray, Is Now in the Thick of It

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-    WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III managed in a dozen years as F.B.I. director to stay above the partisan fray, carefully cultivating a rare reputation for independence and fairness. But his appointment as special counsel overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation has thrown him into the middle of the most charged political brawl of his career — especially since his early hires include several prosecutors who have donated to Democratic candidates in the past.

“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people!” President Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. The president’s supporters and conservative news outlets have echoed his message that Mr. Mueller’s investigation is unjustified and its staff biased against Mr. Trump.

Veterans of past Washington battles on the borders of law and politics said that the president’s pushback was to be expected, but that its ferocity and timing were unusual. Just one month into the job, Mr. Mueller has not yet finished hiring staff members or installing a computer network — deliberately segregated from the main Justice Department — in the Patrick Henry Building in downtown Washington.

“It’s early in the game to begin to impugn the prosecutors,” said Philip Allen Lacovara, a Watergate prosecutor and a Republican. “It’s a pre-emptive nuclear strike. If you’re afraid of what the prosecutors are going to find out, you try to debunk anything they might come up with in advance by attacking them.”

At least for now, Mr. Mueller is not responding to the president’s salvos or allowing his staff to answer them. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mr. Mueller, said his office had imposed “stringent controls to prohibit unauthorized disclosures that deal severely with any member who engages in this conduct.”

The office declined to make public a comprehensive list of whom Mr. Mueller has hired. But Mr. Carr confirmed several names that have trickled out.

They include three current Justice Department or F.B.I. officials: Andrew Weissmann, who had led the fraud section of the department’s Criminal Division, served as general counsel to the F.B.I. when Mr. Mueller was its director, and previously led the Enron task force; Michael R. Dreeben, a deputy solicitor general who specializes in appellate issues involving criminal law; and Lisa C. Page, an F.B.I. lawyer who was a trial lawyer in the Criminal Division’s organized crime section.

In addition, when Mr. Mueller left WilmerHale, the law firm where he worked after stepping down from the F.B.I. in 2013 until he became a special counsel last month, he took three partners with him: James L. Quarles III, a veteran litigator who was an assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation early in his career; Jeannie Rhee, another experienced white-collar criminal litigator who was a public-corruption prosecutor and then worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and Aaron Zebley, who was Mr. Mueller’s chief of staff at the F.B.I.

In all, Mr. Carr said, Mr. Mueller has now hired 12 lawyers, and several more are in the pipeline. A former federal prosecutor said Mr. Mueller was hiring rank-and-file prosecutors to fill out his office staff, and has been prospecting for detailees from several prominent United States attorney offices, including the Southern District of New York.

But prospective hires thinking about joining Mr. Mueller’s team are watching those who have signed up come under intense scrutiny of the sort that ordinary prosecutors and corporate lawyers rarely experience, as Mr. Trump’s supporters seek to discredit the investigation.

Mr. Weissmann donated to the Obama campaign in 2008, when he was working for the Jenner & Block law firm. Ms. Rhee represented the Clinton Foundation — alongside the WilmerHale partner Jamie Gorelick, who now represents Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law — and donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Mr. Quarles has made donations to candidates of both parties — but on balance, he has given mostly to Democrats.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an outspoken Trump supporter, said those hires were reason for serious concern. “Tell me if you were a Republican, you wouldn’t be worried,” he said.

Defenders of Mr. Mueller’s early hires point out that Justice Department rules, which he must follow, prohibit taking political or ideological affiliation into account when deciding whom to hire for career positions like those in the special counsel’s office.

Of Mr. Mueller’s initial choices, Mr. Lacovara said: “These are career professionals. Naturally some are going to have political affiliations. But I’m absolutely confident that Bob Mueller is not appointing people with these significant professional achievements because they’re Democrats.”

The concept of a special prosecutor has always been premised on the principle that a neutral arbiter, free of any taint of politics, will ensure public faith in the fairness of an investigation. That premise has been severely strained in the past, when Democrats accused the Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr of overreach and political bias against President Bill Clinton as he went from investigating a land deal to a sexual affair.

Republicans likewise complained when Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed to pursue a C.I.A. leak, ended up charging I. Lewis Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, with lying to investigators — while not charging Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, who admitted that he had been an initial source of the leak.

“No president has liked having a special prosecutor looking at them,” said Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University, who has written books on Archibald Cox, the Watergate prosecutor, and on the Clinton impeachment scandal. “Most of them have pushed back pretty hard.”

But for Mr. Trump, the tactic of trying to discredit anyone who poses a danger to him has become familiar. Campaigning for the presidency while being sued for fraud over Trump University, he attacked the judge overseeing the case as biased against him because the judge was Mexican-American. When the Congressional Budget Office was expected to issue dire projections about the Republican health care plan, the White House declared that the budget office had a history of putting out inaccurate statistics.

In the case of Mr. Mueller, there is evidence of a coordinated strategy of attack. When Mr. Mueller was appointed last month, Mr. Gingrich praised him as a “superb choice” and declared that “his reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.”

That was then. Mr. Gingrich said he had changed his mind about the investigation after the fired F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said he had leaked accounts of his conversations with Mr. Trump in part in hopes of spurring the appointment of a special counsel. Then, Mr. Gingrich said, came Mr. Mueller’s hires.

“We’re putting this all together,” Mr. Gingrich said, referring to the details of the Democratic donations and other indications of bias on the part of Mr. Mueller’s appointees.

Even if Mr. Mueller wanted to seek political balance on his team, he would face an unusual challenge. Not only Democrats, but many Republican veterans of the Justice Department have spoken out against Mr. Trump.

Under the circumstances, said Paul Rosenzweig, a veteran of Mr. Starr’s independent counsel investigation, Mr. Mueller should consider playing political defense more aggressively than he has before. For example, he said, if Mr. Mueller has hired other prosecutors who donated to Republicans, he should put that information out — or at least disclose the full list of names.

Normally, Mr. Rosenzweig said, a top prosecutor can respond to political attacks on his staff with a shrug.

“In an investigation into drug violence in Miami or political corruption in Columbus, Ohio, that is a perfectly sensible answer,” he said. “It’s not so sensible here.”

But Kathryn Ruemmler, who worked repeatedly with Mr. Mueller over the years as she rose from an Enron task force prosecutor to principal deputy attorney general and then White House counsel for President Barack Obama, said that he was unlikely to change his approach.

“It was well known among veterans of the Justice Department,” she said, “that Bob Mueller’s approach was ‘if you live by the press, you die by the press.’”

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