This article has been updated.
If the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is, as President Trump would have it, the “single greatest Witch Hunt in American history,” it is also a witch hunt that is turning up an awful lot of alleged and confessed witches. As of writing, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has filed scores of charges against 19 people, five of whom have pleaded guilty to at least one criminal count.
Trump’s argument, though, is obviously not focused on people like Alex van der Zwaan, the lawyer who was sentenced last week to a month in prison for lying to Mueller’s team. He is referring to Mueller’s investigations into himself and people close to him.
“It’s a disgrace,” Trump said Monday night, talking about the FBI’s searches earlier in the day of the home and office of his longtime attorney Michael Cohen. “It’s, frankly, a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” He went on to criticize Attorney General Jeff Sessions and to call Mueller’s investigators “the most biased group of people,” people who “have the biggest conflicts of interest I’ve ever seen.”
The problem, though, is that the people leading the investigation — and the people behind the search of Cohen’s properties — were all Republicans, Trump donors or Trump appointees.
It’s true, as the chart above shows, that many of the lawyers working for Mueller have given to Democrats in the past or gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. (Our fact-checkers have been tracking this over time.) This is the “conflict of interest” to which Trump is referring. There is no evidence that these lawyers are actually exhibiting any bias, mind you. Most are career professionals who, between them, have decades of experience working for Democratic and Republican presidents at the Justice Department. The charges that have been brought so far have yet to be tested in criminal trials or have resulted in admissions of guilt.
Regardless, any recommendations brought by those lawyers have to flow through Mueller, who was first appointed to lead the FBI by George W. Bush and who is a registered Republican. Any charges also have to get the sign-off of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also a Republican and a man who serves in his position after having been appointed to it by Trump himself. (Rosenstein also appointed Mueller, after Sessions recused himself from investigations dealing with the 2016 election.)
Relevant to the Cohen development is U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, representing the Southern District of New York. He has made political contributions to Republicans including, in July 2016, to Trump. Sessions appointed Berman to his current position after a meeting with Trump.
So, as we reported Monday night, the warrant to search Cohen’s home and office went through a Republican-heavy team, including two people picked for their jobs by Trump himself.
According to Post reporting, Mueller referred Cohen to Rosenstein for investigation. Rosenstein could have granted Mueller the ability to pursue the investigation but instead referred it to Berman. Berman’s team put together the search warrant application, apparently including information that wasn’t part of what Mueller had focused on. Once approved by Berman (or perhaps an unidentified assistant attorney general, though that seems less likely), the warrant was approved by a magistrate judge.
Update: New reporting suggests that Berman actually wasn’t involved in the Cohen warrant directly. He had recused himself, according to ABC News’s Jonathan Karl. Justice Department rules indicate that for a search warrant targeting an attorney, either the U.S. attorney or an assistant attorney general needs to approve it. The warrant in this case was apparently approved by Rosenstein, according to the New York Times.
If that’s a witch hunt, it is being led by a posse that supports Trump’s party or Trump himself.
It is worth noting that the density of Democrats on Mueller’s team isn’t all that surprising in the abstract. In 2015, we pulled data from the 2012 and 2014 election cycles to match self-identified job titles to political giving. Attorneys were more likely to give to Democrats than Republicans by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. That includes attorneys general and their teams. (The circles below are not to scale.)
Attorneys are more likely to have given to Democrats than Republicans, as is the case with Mueller’s team.
But that is a red herring. Trump is seizing on those donations to suggest that the special counsel’s investigation is hopelessly biased against him. In making that case, though, he necessarily ignores that the ultimate authority for charges is Rosenstein — a Republican who Trump himself said should hold his current position.
This article was corrected to show that Berman was appointed by Sessions.