In an unsurprising backlash from Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, the Department of Justice has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to head the investigation into allegations that Trump’s 2016 election campaign had links to Russian operatives. Mr Comey, the director of the FBI at the time of his firing was heading the investigation. Trump said that he fired him because of his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State, but later admitted that he had the FBI’s investigation into his 2016 campaign teams alleged links to Russian operatives in mind when he fired Mr Comey. Far from halting the investigation – or hindering it in some way – the firing of Mr Comey has simply increased the suspicions that the President has something to hide and has had the effect of reinvigorating the investigation.
Robert Mueller was appointed FBI director by George W Bush just a week before 9/11 and remained its head for most of the presidency of President Obama, serving 12 years in the position. He is well respected in Washington and seen as a substantial figure and appears to have cross-party support to lead the investigation. Speaking in a statement yesterday, Mr Mueller said: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.” Mr Mueller’s appointment was made by the deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein, who said his reasoning for doing so was “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, [including] any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”. Ironically, it was a letter from Rod Rosentein to President Trump last week that gave Mr Trump the excuse to fire James Comey. A special counsel can be appointed by the Attorney General or Deputy Attorney General to undertake an independent investigation. This has only been done once before when John Danforth was appointed to investigate the Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas during the Bill Clinton administration.
Mr Rosenstein continued: “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
The President released a statement on Mr Mueller’s appointment, in which he said: “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.” Later, however, in his usual forum of Twitter, he said: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” and “With all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” The President’s tweets follow a comment at a public appearance yesterday at which he said no politician in history had been treated “worse or more unfairly.” It seems the President has a persecution complex along with his many other character flaws.
Mr Rosenstein’s announcement of the appointment of a special counsel was withheld from the White House and the Capitol beforehand, coming as a surprise to both the President and the House Intelligence Committee. A special counsel has broad powers. He can subpoena documents and prosecute any crimes, without approval of Congress. Response to his appointment, beyond the President, has been positive – coming as it does after months of calls for just such an appointment.
Republican Senator Susan Collins said: “A special counsel is very much needed in this situation, [Mueller is] exactly the right kind of individual for this job”. Meanwhile, Senator Tim Kaine, a former vice-presidential candidate, said: “Good move. Now let’s get some answers.” The Senate minority leader, Nancy Pelosi called Mr Mueller: “a respected public servant of the highest integrity.” Mr Mueller has a record of standing up to Presidents. After 9/11, along with the Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Deputy Attorney General James Comey (who would succeed Mr Mueller as Director of the FBI), threatened to resign on masse after President Bush attempted to bring in a wiretap programme that would allow wiretapping without a court warrant. The Justice Department determined it was illegal and the three men only backed down when President Bush changed aspects of the programme. Mr Mueller also oversaw the investigation into the 1988 Lockerbie bombing when he was heading the justice department’s criminal division in the early 1990s, and the drug case against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. He also led the probe into the 1991 collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Mr Mueller is a Vietnam veteran, having joined the Marines in 1968. After Vietnam he completed a law degree and began practicing law in San Francisco in 1973 before entering politics in 1976 as an assistant US attorney in the city. A colleague of Mr Mueller described him as “experienced, knowledgeable, credible and utterly incorruptible.” David Kris continued: “He cannot be intimidated. At this stage in his career, he has nothing to prove, no reputation to burnish, no axe to grind. He is ramrod straight in his integrity,” Mr Mueller therefore appears to be the ideal person to continue the investigation into Trump’s campaign and the comments about him explain why most are supporting of his appointment – and also explains why Mr Trump is not.
So less than four months into his presidency, Trump has descended so far that he now faces an investigation by a rarely-appointed special counsel, and many are speculating that this could be the beginning of the end for the President. However, Peter Barker – writing in the New York Times on Wednesday – said that “the notion that President Trump will actually be impeached seemed like liberal wishful thinking, but a new prosecutor represented a serious threat and Washington was abuzz on Wednesday with the surround sound of scandal.” One scandal after another has placed the president no doubt feeling under siege. As Mr Barker says, “now he faces perhaps the most daunting moment of his young administration after his decision to fire the F.B.I. director, his disclosure of sensitive information to the Russians and a report that he tried to shut down an investigation into a former aide.”
Mr Trump’s “clumsy and self-defeating” attempts to influence and stifle the investigation into Russian links has only helped to intensify the crisis besetting the President and his White House. But as Julian Epstein, former chief counsel for the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee – and who made the “clumsy” comment – says, it is entirely his own fault. Mr Epstein reflected on how the White House was losing control: “With the appointment of Mueller, they have now totally lost control of this train and have very limited ability to manage the widening crisis around it, […] This will go down as one of the most inept and counterproductive efforts of damage control that we’ve ever seen in public life.”
Everyone’s pre-occupation with the scandals coming out of the White House on a daily basis is distracting everyone – especially Trump’s administration – from getting on with the day-to-day running of the country. The authort James Robenalt, who wrote “January 1973: Watergate, Roe vs. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever,” said of the situation: “For President Trump, the drip, drip, drip of scandal has sidetracked, for example, health care and tax reform, […] If this continues, the paralysis, as with Nixon, will cause a loss of confidence overseas, our enemies will be emboldened, and at home the Republican agenda will stall.”
If scandals aren’t to overwhelm and destroy President Trump he is going to have to rely on the support, or “firewall” as Peter Barker puts it in his New York Times article, of a Republican-controlled Congress. That is a distinct advantage that neither Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton enjoyed when they were being investigated. President Clinton survived impeachment when he was acquitted in the Senate in 1999, but President Nixon – of course – became the first and only President to-date to resign in 1974 in order to escape impeachment. He was later pardoned of all crimes relating to the Watergate break-in and cover-up by his successor President Gerald Ford. Republicans may be showing signs of concern and nervousness over the growing scandals but that is a long way from them abandoning their President. To do that they would also be abandoning for the foreseeable future the Republican’s agenda for the nation.
The writer John A Farrell, who has recently published a book on Nixon called “Richard Nixon: The Life”, thinks that the Trump administration will face weeks or months more of crisis and that the White House can look forward to: “Anger. Distraction. Fear. Friends are now viewed with suspicion, as potential accusers. Rumours fly that so-and-so has lawyered up, or is talking to the prosecutors.” Robert Mueller’s investigation is set to be a long one and it’s outcome is far from certain, but if Mr Mueller is the man that many are saying he is then his investigation will be America’s and the world’s best hope at finding out the truth about Mr Trump, his campaign to become President, and what – if any – ties they had or have with Russia. Here’s wishing Mr Mueller success in his investigation.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Robert Mueller: ‘Ramrod straight’ ex-FBI boss to lead Russia inquiry – bbc.co.uk/news – 18 May 2017
- Special counsel: What is it and what will Robert Mueller do? – bbc.co.uk/news – 18 May 2017
- Trump: FBI inquiry is ‘greatest witch hunt’ in history – bbc.co.uk/news – 18 May 2017
- Russia: The scandal Trump can’t shake – bbc.co.uk/news – 16 May 2017
- Trump-Russia scandal: How did we get here? – bbc.co.uk/news – 17 May 2017
- Could Trump be guilty of obstruction of justice? – bbc.co.uk/news – 17 May 2017 – by John Gunter in Washington
- Historians suggest “more unfairly” treated politicians than Trump – bbc.co.uk/news – 18 May 2017 – by Lamia Estatie
- ‘Witch hunt’: Trump appears at odds with White House over Robert Mueller – theguardian.com – 18 May 2017 – by Lauren Gambino
- Former FBI head Robert Mueller to oversee Trump-Russia investigation – theguardian.com – 18 May 2017 – by Tom McCarthy, Jon Swaine and Ben Jacobs
- Why Donald Trump can’t fire his way out of ‘Russia thing’ this time – theguardian.com – 18 May 2017 – by Julian Borger in Washington
- Donald Trump lashes out over special counsel appointed to investigate his Russia links and misspells counsel – independent.co.uk – 18 May 2017 – by Lizzie Dearden
- Special prosecutor Robert Mueller ‘will take Donald Trump from frying pan to fire’ over Russia investigation – independent.co.uk – 18 May 2017 – by Carolina Mortimer
- Donald Trump campaign repeatedly met with Russia to set up secret communications channel, report reveals – independent.co.uk – 18 May 2017 – by Andrew Griffin
- Trump Calls Himself the Victim of a ‘Witch Hunt’ – nytimes.com – 18 May 2017 – by Mark Landler
- Robert Mueller: The Special Counsel America Needs – nytimes.com – 17 May 2017 – by the Editorial Board
- Robert Mueller, Former F.B.I. Director, Is Named Special Counsel for Russia Investigation – nytimes.com – 17 May 2017 – by Rebecca R Ruiz and Mark Landler
- Forget Watergate. Think Iran-Contra. – nytimes.com – 18 May 2017
- Washington Is Abuzz With Surround Sound of Scandal – nytimes.com – 17 May 2017 – by Peter Barker