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The Comey question: Some conservatives say Mueller has a conflict in the Trump probe

Howard Kurtz

Beating up on James Comey is so last week.

The new target is Bob Mueller.

Now it would be a heavy lift for the Trump team to go after the former FBI director who was recently named as special counsel in the Russia investigation. He has a well-earned reputation for integrity and is not a, well, grandstander. He was so successful that after his 10-year tenure as FBI chief he was given a waiver to serve another two years. And there were reports that President Trump had considered him to run the bureau again.

But Mueller does have a problem—and it’s a vulnerability that the president’s allies seem ready to exploit.

Mueller and Comey are old buddies.

They first worked together in the Bush administration, when Comey was deputy attorney general and Mueller was in charge of the FBI.

And now you have a situation where Comey has emerged as Trump’s chief accuser—his firing, after all, triggered the appointment of a special counsel—and Mueller will be calling the shots.

“Is that a conflict?” asks Byron York in the Washington Examiner. “Should a prosecutor pursue a case in which the star witness is a close friend?”

And the story took a bizarre turn last night when Trump confidante Chris Ruddy, after visiting the White House, told PBS’s Judy Woodruff that the president is “considering perhaps terminating” Mueller. Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, said he didn’t see the need for a special counsel but that he thought firing Mueller would be a “very significant mistake.” So is this a trial balloon that Trump wants floated?

It’s hardly unusual for a president and special prosecutor to be at war. Bill Clinton’s allies relentlessly attacked Ken Starr when he broadened his Whitewater probe to include what happened with Monica Lewinsky.

But Mueller hasn’t done much of anything yet. The question is whether he’s still the right man for the job.

York quotes legal experts as saying Mueller should or shouldn’t recuse himself, but I would argue it’s less a legal question than a political one.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow wouldn’t rule out the president eventually having to fire Mueller, although he said he “can’t imagine” it would come to that.

Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser, said on Twitter that “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair…Time to think.” He made a reference to political contributions by some of Mueller’s hires.

But less than a month ago, the former House speaker tweeted that Mueller was a “superb choice” with an “impeccable” reputation for honesty.

He said he changed his mind because of Comey’s admitted leaking, the “close” Comey-Mueller relationship and because Mueller is hiring “partisans.”

But not all conservatives agree. At Red State, Jay Caruso says: “Once again, we have a situation where somebody looking into President Trump is on the receiving end of a smear attempt.”

I don’t think it’s a smear to raise conflict questions about Mueller. But what’s important is that, whether Mueller finds any evidence of criminality or not, that the public have confidence in his decision.

Perhaps he should address the question in the near future.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.