UPDATE: Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman reported on March 22 that according to two sources, President Donald Trump “is likely to add” Victoria Toensing to his legal team as well, in “a sign that Trump wants to flip the script and investigate his investigators.”
Since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in May and given a mandate to investigate Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and any other matters arising from that probe, the president and his supporters in Congress and the media have responded in two ways. First, they have tried to make the case that the president and his associates did nothing wrong -- that there was “no collusion,” as Fox News’ Sean Hannity and others have put it. Second, they have sought to delegitimize anyone whose work could endanger the president, from Mueller himself, to other top FBI and Justice Department officials involved in the case, to the journalists reporting on the probe.
The New York Times report today that Trump plans to hire Joseph diGenova to join his personal legal team ties those two branches together more tightly than ever. As the Times points out, in a January appearance on Fox, the Washington lawyer with deep ties to the GOP baselessly accused people at the Department of Justice and FBI of “trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime.” But beyond that, diGenova’s wife and law partner, Victoria Toensing, who is also a longtime Republican activist and lawyer, is representing a purported “witness” whose claims are at the center of a right-wing media effort to have another special counsel appointed. In theory, this second special counsel would be able to investigate Mueller himself over a shoddily constructed conspiracy theory involving the Russian nuclear energy agency’s 2010 acquisition of Uranium One, a company with licenses to extract U.S. uranium.
In 2015, conservatives used the Uranium One deal to attack Hillary Clinton, claiming that as secretary of state, she helped push the deal through in exchange for payments from Russians to her husband and the Clinton Foundation. They returned to the story after the election as a way of diffusing the Trump-Russia story by claiming that, in the words of Sean Hannity, it was Clinton who was guilty of the “real collusion” with Russia. And the tale came back again after an October 17 report in The Hill claimed that a “confidential U.S. witness” who was “working inside the Russian nuclear industry” -- later revealed as lobbyist William Douglas Campbell -- had told the FBI that Russian nuclear officials had tried to pay off the Clintons to secure Hillary Clinton’s support for the deal, and that the Obama administration had then covered it up.
Each iteration of this story has collapsed in light of the simple reality that the State Department was one of numerous federal and state agencies to sign off on the Uranium One deal, and that there is no evidence -- even from Campbell -- that Hillary Clinton ever personally participated in any discussions about it.
Crucially, the latest version of the Uranium One conspiracy theory implicates not just Clinton, but also Mueller, who was FBI director when Campbell came forward. As such, it provided a way for the president’s allies to call for Mueller’s removal. As Fox News' Jeanine Pirro put on October 28, “Starting Monday, this has to happen: Special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller must be fired immediately. His role as head of the FBI during the uranium deal and the Russia extortion case, his friendship with Jim Comey, demand his firing.”
Toensing is Campbell’s lawyer, and so she has played a key role in promoting the Uranium One tale. She and diGenova frequently represent Republican clients or “whistleblowers” whose claims could be damaging to Democrats. As such, those clients typically receive credulous coverage from Fox and other right-wing outlets, where the lawyers often appear. True to form, Campbell’s claims drew a constant stream of coverage on Fox. In the three weeks after The Hill story dropped alone, the network devoted nearly 12 hours to the Uranium One story.
Toensing herself has appeared on Fox to discuss the story at least 18 times since it broke. In one of those appearances, Toensing made her aims explicit. After Hannity said that in spite of the Uranium One news, “Robert Mueller is now investigating anything involved with Russia,” Toensing replied, “I think this cries out for a special counsel. I just don't see how this can continue on. Congressional committees are fine. But this really takes -- this is a criminal investigation.”
Over the following days and weeks, the president’s media and congressional allies chimed in, calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Uranium One deal. It’s clear that at least part of the impetus for that push is to checkmate Mueller -- as longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone put it, Mueller “can’t be a special prosecutor when he himself is under investigation,” making the naming of a Uranium One special counsel a key step toward curtailing the Mueller probe.
That argument made it all the way to the Oval Office, with Pirro reportedly calling for a special counsel's appointment and bashing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a November meeting with the president and his top aides. Sessions has since publicly suggested that a second special counsel is unnecessary, but the Justice Department has also taken steps to move forward on an investigation.
With diGenova moving onto Trump’s payroll, he’ll be trying to defend the president while Toensing continues to attack Mueller. The pro-Trump two-step has been made manifest in a single household.