By dsamuelsohn@politico.com (Darren Samuelsohn)

Robert Mueller’s glow is fading.

The special counsel who earned bipartisan praise last month as an unimpeachable investigator who would give President Donald Trump a fair shake in the Russia probe is now taking heat from Trump surrogates intent on trying to undercut his integrity.

Hardball complaints are coming at Mueller from several directions. His impartiality is being questioned because one of his likely chief witnesses, the ousted FBI director James Comey, is a longtime friend. Others have flagged past campaign contributions from some of Mueller’s newly-appointed prosecutors to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. A few say the whole probe is a sham and that Mueller should be removed as special counsel.

The wave of freelance attacks, which gathered steam over the weekend following Comey’s dramatic testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoes tactics used by Democrats in the 1990s to undercut special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation into the Clinton White House.

“I think the idea of having an enemy when you’re the object of a special prosecutor is a very important one,” said Dick Morris, who helped pioneer the anti-Starr strategy as a Clinton adviser but is now a Trump fan.

“Clinton only survived a special prosecutor because he made Ken Starr the enemy,” Morris added.

The attacks on Mueller started taking shape last week. Sidney Powell, a former Justice Department attorney who has written extensively about overzealous prosecutors, wrote an op-ed questioning one of Mueller’s staffers on the conservative site Newsmax, which is run by Trump friend Chris Ruddy. Powell zeroed in on Andrew Weissmann, who led the prosecution of Enron executives in the early 2000. That task force, she wrote, “quickly devolved into a cabal that used mob tactics itself.”

Conservatives kept up their complaints on Monday. Writing in the Washington examiner, columnist Byron York suggested Mueller may not be the right person for the job because he’s been friends with Comey for 15 years.

“Is that a conflict? Should a prosecutor pursue a case in which the star witness is a close friend? And when the friend is not only a witness but also arguably a victim – of firing – by the target of the investigation? And when the prosecutor might also be called on to investigate some of his friend’s actions? The case would be difficult enough even without the complicating friendship,” York wrote.

The anti-Mueller pot also is being stirred on Twitter. Ann Coulter complained in a post that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “never should’ve recused himself” from the Russia investigation, adding: “Now that we know TRUMP IS NOT UNDER INVESTIGATION, Sessions should take it back & fire Mueller.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in a Sunday interview on Fox News echoed the president’s complaints that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt,” got a bit more specific on social media on Monday. He wrote: “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring. Check fec reports. Time to rethink.”

It was a big reversal for the former House speaker, who wrote in a Twitter post on May 17, the day the Justice Department announced the special counsel appointment: “Robert Mueller is a superb choice. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Media should now calm down.”

Other Trump associates in recent days have been circulating links to federal fundraising databases showing several of Mueller’s new hires have given to Democrats. They include Weissmann, who is on detail from his post as head of DOJ’s criminal fraud division, who donated $2,300 to Obama during the 2008 campaign; Mueller’s former law partner, James Quarles, who donated $4,600 to Obama for the 2008 and 2012 campaigns and $2,700 to Clinton in 2016 (FEC records show he’s also donated to prominent Republicans, including Sen. George Allen and Rep. Jason Chaffetz); Michael Dreeben, who gave $500 to Obama for the 2008 campaign, as well as $1,000 to Clinton in 2006; and Jeannie Rhee, a former DOJ attorney who donated $5,400 to Clinton in 2015 and 2016, as well as $4,800 to Obama in 2008 and 2011.

Rhee also represented the Clinton Foundation in 2015, where her partner was Democratic Washington powerhouse attorney Jamie Gorelick—who now represents Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Morris, who now supports the Trump White House, called the special counsel’s hiring of past Democratic donors “a huge mistake on Mueller’s part.”

“He has to have a staff of virgins,” Morris said.

Trump and his associates haven’t shied away from aggressive tactics on other aspects of the Russia investigation. Last week, the president himself accused Comey of lying to Congress while under oath about conversations the two men had in the Oval Office and on the telephone regarding the 2016 campaign probe. The Trump White House had outsourced its initial attacks against Comey to prominent surrogates like the Republican National Committee, Trump personal attorney Marc Kasowitz, and the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

The shift from targeting Comey to targeting Mueller became apparent this weekend, when one of the president’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow, in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” refused to rule out whether the president would pledge not to fire the special counsel. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday”, RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said that while Mueller’s probe will “run its course” she also hoped it would “end quickly.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Kasowitz, Mark Corallo, declined to comment, as did Mueller’s spokesman Peter Carr.

Even though it was done during the Clinton era against Starr, Democrats are warning that slamming the investigator remains a risky approach.

“It’s a shameful, shameful ploy,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor concerning the conservative attacks on Mueller. “The right must be afraid of what Mr. Mueller’s going to find.”

Added Adam Goldberg, a former special associate counsel in the Clinton White House, “Why would you want to bait them and attack …read more

Read more here: Trump surrogates go after Mueller

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