Russia probe: Tweet, taunt not enough for Trump

Russia probe: Tweet, taunt not enough for Trump

May 19, 2017
Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller

By Julie Pace

President Donald Trump is facing a crisis he can’t manage with a tweet or a taunt.

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the federal government’s Russia investigation has dramatically raised the legal and political stakes and put Trump’s young presidency in dangerous waters just four months after he was sworn into office.

White House and campaign records may be subpoenaed, and Trump’s presidential privilege to keep West Wing conversations private could be challenged. Current and former staffers will likely have to hire pricey lawyers and sit for interviews. Trump himself may have to answer questions.

And even if Trump’s campaign is ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, the shadow of an investigation will hang over the White House for months or even years.

“They will govern with constant fear of bombshell news being around the corner,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University.

Trump has long maintained that he and his associates had no nefarious ties to Russia. In a written statement shortly after Mueller’s appointment was announced, Trump said a thorough investigation will confirm “there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”

The Justice Department’s decision to put Mueller in charge of the investigation comes as the White House was already reeling from a series of self-inflicted controversies.

Last week, Trump stunningly fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the Russia probe. In a brazen warning to Comey, Trump suggested he may have tapes of their conversations. Undeterred, Comey’s associates then revealed that the former FBI chief has a memo of a meeting with Trump in which the president asks for the investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn to be stopped.

Controversy is nothing new for Trump. As a candidate, he often careened from one crisis to the next, including the release of a video in which he was heard making predatory comments about women. His response often followed a familiar pattern: blaming the media for peddling “fake news,” lashing out at his rivals and creating provocative distractions, often with a well-timed tweet.

He’s tried to deploy that same playbook to tamp down the Russia controversy. He’s repeatedly panned both the FBI investigation and concurrent probes on Capitol Hill as a “hoax.” He’s blamed Democrats for leveling allegations of Russian collusion as a way to explain their crushing defeats in last year’s elections. And he’s urged not only his supporters, but also the FBI, to focus more on the leaks about the investigation that have deepened questions about possible Russia connections.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Trump is “not going to be able to jive his way out” of the Mueller-led probe.

“He wanted to make it out as media and Democratic warfare,” Brinkley said. “But now, with Mueller being chosen and the GOP backing the Justice Department decision, Trump is truly going to be held to the standards of justice.”

In his statement Wednesday night, Trump said he planned to focus on “fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.” But the snowballing Russia controversy has overshadowed much of his agenda and raised questions about whether Republican lawmakers will be willing to take tough votes supporting a president under the cloud of investigation.

As special counsel, Mueller will have all the same powers as a US attorney, though he will still ultimately report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Still, he is not subject to the day-to-day supervision of the Justice Department.

The situation is similar to the investigation into whether officials in President George W. Bush’s administration leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Comey, who was then serving as deputy attorney general, tapped Patrick Fitzgerald to lead the probe, which led to the conviction of a top White House official.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was engulfed by an independent counsel investigation that started as a probe into failed land deals but ultimately exposed his affair with a White House intern. He was impeached by the House, but acquitted by the Senate.

Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Clinton administration and later on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, offered a dire warning for Trump aides on what could come in a White House facing the pressures of an investigation. “It’s all the pressures of life in the White House with this weight hanging over you that could bring untold trauma at any point,” she said.

What is a special counsel, anyway?
SPECIAL counsels like the one named Wednesday to oversee the probe into Russia’s alleged election interference are rare super sleuths with more power and independence than regular American investigators. This time it is former FBI director Robert Mueller who will take over the probe into the meddling as well as whether President Donald Trump’s campaign team colluded with Moscow to tilt the election his way. The stakes are huge.

Unlike a US attorney, a special counsel has more leeway in carrying out a probe. They are appointed when an investigation by a US attorney would present a conflict of interest or “under the circumstances, it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter,” says the law allowing for special counsels.

A special counsel does not have to keep his or her superiors briefed on each step of the probe they are carrying out — even though the counsel does still answer to the Justice Department and thus, ultimately, to the president.
The attorney general or his or her deputy does not have to explain their criteria in choosing someone to be a special counsel, who can even come from outside government.

That is the case with Mueller, the former longtime FBI chief who will resign from the law firm where he works to take on this job. — AP

May 19, 2017