The appointment of a special counsel might not be the ideal way to get to the bottom of the growing list of questions surrounding Donald Trump and Russia. For one, a special counsel still reports to people who report to the president – unlike a hypothetical independent commission.
But the naming of former FBI director Robert Mueller to lead an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia is probably the best option that’s politically available at this point. Americans should be encouraged by his appointment.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who chose Mueller on Wednesday, said he did so in part because a special counsel “is necessary for the American people to have full confidence” in an investigation. He’s right, and it would be difficult to find many people with more investigative experience, integrity and respect from both sides of the aisle than Mueller.
Yes, the special counsel still ultimately answers to Rosenstein, who in turn answers to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president. Rosenstein certainly could obstruct or fire Mueller if he or the president doesn’t like the direction the investigation is going.
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But Mueller has shown that he’s not afraid to lose a job for doing the right thing. As FBI director in 2004 under George W. Bush, he and then deputy attorney general James Comey threatened to resign if the Justice Department wasn’t allowed to bring a domestic eavesdropping program into compliance with the law.
Comey, of course, is at the center of a new swirl of concerns about Trump. The president fired Comey as FBI director on May 9, then acknowledged that the Russia investigation played a role in the dismissal. This week, several news organizations reported that according to Comey, Trump asked that an investigation into then national security adviser Michael Flynn be dropped.
Both incidents have prompted concerns from Democrats and some Republicans about the FBI’s investigation. Already, there was widespread worry about the vigor of House and Senate committee probes into Russia and the 2016 election.
The existence of a special counsel doesn’t absolve those committees from pursuing their investigations, and we believe an independent commission could provide a complementary and more thorough accounting of what happened. Still, Mueller provides a strong safety net if neither happens. He’ll have latitude to steer the investigation wherever the evidence leads, including perhaps to Trump’s dealings with Comey. Mueller also can pursue criminal charges, with Rosenstein’s approval.
As for the deputy attorney general, we’re encouraged by his show of independence this week, especially reports that the president was notified of Mueller’s appointment Wednesday only after Rosenstein signed the order. That kind of autonomy is what should be expected from the Justice Department, but given the president’s steamrolling of norms and firing of Comey, Americans had good reason to worry about the integrity of any Russia investigation.
Robert Mueller won’t necessarily change all that. His appointment, however, should bring comfort to many – and discomfort to those who’ve earned it.