The choice of the next FBI director generated bitter political debate only 48 hours ago. Now, with the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, it’s almost beside the point.
Mueller, a much-respected former director of the bureau, was given a wide-ranging mandate to probe anything connected to the Russians’ meddling in the U.S. presidential election, including any connections to Trump. That investigation had been led by former FBI director James Comey, until he was fired last week by Trump.
The president’s understandable fury at the danger this investigation poses surfaced Thursday morning when, in a tweet, he blasted it as “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”
He realizes that Mueller will have pretty much free rein. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a close political ally, had had to recuse himself from the Russian probe after giving false testimony on his dealings with the Russians. The man in charge is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who affirmed - some would say “salvaged” - his reputation for independence with the decision to appoint Mueller and then inform Sessions and the White House.
Mueller will have to build on the investigative work the FBI has already done and use bureau resources in what is likely to be an extensive inquiry.
Ordinarily a special counsel in such a position might be wary of running afoul of a turf-conscious FBI director, particularly one tapped by Trump and reporting to Sessions. But Mueller is uniquely immune.
“Mueller has such deep ties within the FBI that the new director would be less able to inhibit his investigation than might be the case with some other special counsel,” says Walter Dellinger, a former solicitor general who knows the Justice Department and Mueller well.
The FBI choice, on matters apart from the Russian inquiry, is still important; the director will be the nation’s chief law enforcement official, running an agency with 35,000 employees and a budget of more than $8 billion. He or she can play an important role setting priorities.
White House aides had said Trump might make the appointment before he heads off on a foreign trip on Friday. He was interviewing candidates. But the pressure for speedy action, to reduce the political firestorm over the Comey firing, may be diminished now that Mueller is in place.
The initial effort by the Trump team to publicly welcome the Mueller appointment soon vanished, as the perils of a serious investigation became apparent. Thus, Trump blasted it as a “witch hunt.”
It affects others too. The president’s former national security adviser, Gen. Mike Flynn, has refused to cooperate with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the Russian activity; he took payments from the Russian without disclosing them; and he was a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the Trump transition and failed to disclose that to the Justice Department. He also is said to have lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his dealings with the Russian ambassador in Washington. Reuters reported Thursday that were 18 previously undisclosed contacts between top Russians and Trump operatives, including Flynn, during the presidential race last year.
Also in the cross hairs of the inquiry will be Trump advisers and operatives Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone, all of whom have been linked to the Russians or the Moscow-directed activities to influence the 2016 American presidential election. Unlike Clinton special prosecutor Ken Starr, Mueller is an experienced prosecutor and will stay focused on his main mission.
But his mandate is far-reaching and he will have the almost certain support of Rosenstein. This enables him, if he deems it relevant, to look into any Trump ties to the Russians, which could include examining his tax returns. The president has said he doesn’t have any financial ties to Russians. Of course, he also promised to release his tax returns to the public, and that hasn’t happened.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.