Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel on Wednesday to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The probe is now under the purview of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has been praised by his former colleagues, national security experts, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Trump said in a statement after learning of the appointment that he looked “forward to this matter concluding quickly.”
“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,” he said. Many of his advisers framed it as a positive development, since the White House would be able to avoid questions about the probe and refer them to Mueller.
Privately, however, a person in the room with Trump and his aides when they heard of Mueller’s appointment said that “everyone knew this wasn’t good news,” according to Politico.
Foreign policy analyst Max Boot tweeted a similar assessment on Wednesday. He said the White House was “desperately spinning the special counsel as good news, but a retired FBI agent tells me Mueller will ‘crush’ Trump.”
Scott Olson, a former FBI agent who recently retired after three decades at the bureau, told Business Insider on Wednesday that Mueller “is a good choice for this investigation.”
“Not only is he a seasoned prosecutor, he has a good level of experience in national security investigations and issues,” Olson said. “I think we can expect him to focus on developing a solid understanding of the facts — what actually happened — and then follow with a thoughtful recommendation regarding who, if anyone, should be held accountable.”
‘Make no mistake: This is bad news for President Trump’
Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last Tuesday amid the bureau’s investigation into his Russia ties, prompting Democrats and national security experts to call for a special counsel. Those calls subsequently grew louder when The New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey to drop the bureau’s probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“People across the political spectrum should be able to breathe a sigh of relief at the appointment of Robert Mueller,” said Andy Wright, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at Savannah Law School.
“He begins this process with the bipartisan gravitas that can reassure to have confidence in the criminal and counterintelligence investigation,” Wright added. “Make no mistake, though: This is bad news for President Trump.”
Robert Deitz, a former top counsel for the NSA and the CIA who worked with Mueller when he headed the FBI, said that he has “enormous respect” for Mueller. He echoed Wright’s assessment, however, that Mueller’s appointment means “the president may have gone from the frying pan into the fire.”
Wright said Mueller, unlike Rosenstein, enjoys political independence, and that Trump would pay a “much higher price” for firing Mueller than he did by firing Comey. Most Republicans openly supported Comey’s dismissal but reacted with alarm when they heard that Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn probe in February.
“Trump won’t have the ability to influence or impede this investigation without severe consequences,” Wright said. “The special counsel doesn’t have additional power, but he has independence. Unlike Rosenstein, Mueller doesn’t have to run the broader Department of Justice. Therefore, he gets to avoid the awkwardness of investigating, say, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ conduct while sitting through five other meetings a day with him.”
The FBI is reportedly examining Sessions’ interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, last year — which he failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings — as part of its probe into Russia’s election interference.
“In addition,” Wright said, “Mueller will enjoy a base of support in Congress that will be wary of any efforts to clip his wings.”
Trump’s advisers have recommend that he hire a private criminal counsel to deal with the Russia investigations, according to The New York Times. It would not be unprecedented: President Bill Clinton hired a personal counsel, David Kendall, in the early 1990s amid the FBI’s Whitewater probe.
Wright said Trump won’t be able to depend on White House counsel Don McGahn to defend him, because “his use of them in a defence could transform them into instruments of obstruction of justice.”
“He needs to hire private criminal counsel,” Wright said. “White House lawyers represent the Office of the President and not Donald J. Trump.”
In any case, Wright said, McGahn is becoming “a fact witness in his own right” with regard to Trump’s relationship with Flynn.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee earlier this month that she warned McGahn about Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador in January so the Trump administration “could take action” amid concerns Flynn could have been subject to blackmail by the Russians.
Any private counsel Trump hires, moreover, would have their work cut out for them given the president’s penchant for out-of-court comments — like his frequent use of Twitter.
Former Justice Department prosecutor Beth Wilkinson told Reuters that Trump’s comments last year about the judge overseeing his Trump University fraud case — he called the Indiana-born judge a “hater” and noted his Mexican heritage — “shows the difficulty of having a client who won’t listen.”
Indeed, when it comes to examining whether Trump sought to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and whether the Trump campaign played a role, experts say the president’s pattern of behaviour and past statements about the probe will likely come back to haunt him. (Trump’s comments about barring Muslims from the US were similarly considered when federal courts were debating the intent behind his two controversial executive orders on immigration.)
“The president needs a sophisticated lawyer who has dealt with cases at the intersection of criminal law and politics,” a Washington lawyer involved in several White House investigations told Reuters on Wednesday. “He is flunking all the rules of crisis management.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
More from Natasha Bertrand:
- ‘What does Flynn have on Trump?’: Flynn indicated he had a story to tell — and Trump has been eager to defend him
- ‘The president has willingly created this self-portrait’: Trump has become the ‘principal witness’ against himself
- House Majority Leader told Republicans in 2016 he thought Putin was paying Trump
- Senate leaders just sent 2 explosive letters asking Comey to testify and demanding his memos
- Report: Russian bank whose CEO met secretly with Jared Kushner helped finance Trump’s Toronto hotel
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