With less than two months before the 2020 election, a controversy over the mobile phones used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation team is beginning to make headlines. For many, the new so-called “Phonegate” scandal has echoes of the 2016 controversy over Hillary Clinton emails. And it’s true, they do have one key thing in common:
Both are much ado about nothing, but have the ability to change an election.
The newest controversy relates to recently released records from the Department of Justice. The previously undisclosed records reveal that some of the cellphones used by attorneys and investigators on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team had their cell phones a wiped during the Russia investigation by the Special Counsel’s office. The erasures of data on the phones were the result of their investigators forgetting passwords, breaking or losing devises and other reasons mobile devices are often reset to factory settings.
The newly seen records, released in response to a request by Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation that claiming to promote “transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law” was immediately seized upon by supporters of President Trump and other critics of the Mueller investigation. Despite the fact that the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation of the underlying conduct of the FBI and Mueller investigators found that there was no improper conduct, Republican critics of the probe have not been swayed by the findings.
For example, on Fox and Friends Weekend on Saturday, Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Member Senator Marsha Blackburn (R- Tenn.) called the wiped phones a cover-up. “This shows you why you have to investigate the investigators,” Blackburn said, adding without citing any evidence, “they got caught and now they are trying to execute a cover-up that nobody ever could have made this up.”
The controversy related to the wiped phones has drawn comparison to the 2016 claims that Hillary Clinton had improperly deleted emails from a private email server she used while serving as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. The controversy became a Republican rallying cry during the 2016 presidential campaign with then candidate Trump often leading cheers of “Lock her up,” insinuating that Clinton had engaged in criminal behavior. For her part, Clinton denied any wrongdoing and painted the email controversy as pure politics.
Yet the Clinton email scandal did have an impact on the late stages of the 2016 campaign when, then FBI James Comey released a letter on October 28, 2016 to Congress that said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into Clinton’s private email server. The letter, released less than 10 days before the election, had an immediate impact on Clinton’s standing in the polls. Many people believe that it was, in fact, the Comey letter that cost Clinton the election.
With President Trump trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden substantially in most national polls, as well as in numerous battleground states, the Trump campaign has been grasping at issues that they hope will change the fundamental dynamics of the campaign. So far, attacks on Biden, his running mate Kamala Harris have not seemed to be effective in changing the narrative on the race.
Which is where the news of the Mueller team’s phones comes into play. On Saturday morning, President Trump lashed out at the Mueller investigation on Twitter, making untrue claims about its legitimacy and its findings.
Yet what the Mueller phone controversy has in common with the Clinton email scandal is substantial. Both controversies are predicated on the fact that there is some vast conspiracy to hide information and create a cover-up of wrongdoing. Both controversies are pitch-perfect for a President who thrives on prompting division and doubt, especially during election. And both of the sets of facts have just enough truth in them to make them sound like legitimate issues, despite being otherwise.
But the one commonality between both the Mueller phones and the Clinton emails is that they have nothing to do with the substantial challenges facing the United States of its leaders. Yet whereas the Clinton emails at least related to a candidate running for office, the Mueller emails have nothing to do with Joe Biden whatsoever. That doesn’t mean he critics won’t try to pin the issue on him, but it is likely a very hard case to make given the facts.
In the end, the so-called Mueller phone controversy, much like the 2016 Clinton email controversy, isn’t a real scandal. It’s a smokescreen for a struggling candidate and a cynical ploy to distract voters from the real issues at stake. It’s also just enough of an issue that if it isn’t treated as a sideshow, not substance, it could end up transforming an election.
Just like the Clinton emails did.