As we observe the first anniversary of Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel of the inquiry into the Trump team’s Russia ties, we also ought to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the appointment of Archibald Cox as special prosecutor of the Watergate investigation. We know how the Cox story ended. We have no idea how the Mueller story will end. But we can say as we reach these two coincidental milestones in American history that the stories they represent are inextricably linked in law, politics and morality.
The beleaguered White House – still ducking and dodging terms of a presidential interview with investigators – plans to use the Mueller anniversary to argue that the special counsel’s investigation should end, now, because the American people have not been shown any evidence of collusion or obstruction on the part of White House officials. It would be “absurd” for the Mueller probe to last beyond one year, Trump tribune Rudy Giuliani now argues, because the public would lose patience with the pace of Mueller’s work.
It’s hard to know which Americans Giuliani has in mind here. Surely he’s not thinking of Trump voters in Wisconsin – the folks who pushed his campaign to a stunning victory in November 2016 – because if he is, he’s barking up the wrong tree. The Republican participants in a focus group there Tuesday night were adamant in signaling to Washington that the worst thing Trump could do now is fire Mueller. It was, said pollsters, the only thing about which “both sides” agreed. Welcome to the Divided States of America, Circa 2018.
What the White House is doing here is riffing off new polls that show a slight decline in support for Mueller as the investigation continues. It’s clear that Republican support for Mueller has waned in the face of relentless television attacks – a nightly staple on Fox News – and partisan criticism leveled by true Trump believers in Congress. But that’s only going to get Trump and Giuliani so far. New polls also show strong continuing support for Mueller among independents, especially in swing states, who, blessedly, say they trust him more than Trump.
So the president’s latest bright idea to save his own skin, and perhaps the skins of others in his administration, is to pretend that there is some sort of one-year statute of limitation to the special counsel’s work and that Mueller is breaching some sort of law or norm in continuing past his due date. But that is a transparently bogus argument, rooted neither in law nor fact, and anyone who cares about getting to the truth here ought to reject it. What it tells us, mostly, is what we already know: Donald Trump acts like a guilty man.
There are many reasons why the target or subject of a criminal investigation would want a prosecutor to end an investigation by some arbitrary date. And some of these reasons are why the law has statutes of limitation for most every crime. At some point, the law allows some people to get away with it. But we are nowhere near that point with the special counsel’s probe and there is no reason to reward the administration’s denials and obfuscation.
In a moment of exquisite timing, Giuliani rolled out the new “anniversary” strategy at the same time a federal judge in Washington was endorsing Mueller’s authority to prosecute people like former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort in federal court. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s ruling was notable not just for the way she roundly rejected Manafort’s arguments relying in part on Watergate-era precedent, but for the way she did it. “The Special Counsel would have been remiss to ignore such an obvious potential link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Judge Jackson wrote.
It was the judicial equivalence of saying: “Duh, Robert Mueller is on to something and should be allowed to continue to pursue his cases and his causes.” We are going to see and hear and read many more judicial “duhs” before all this is through. Never mind all that Mueller knows and we don’t. There already is enough in the public record to tell us that Mueller is not fishing; that there is evidence, even compelling evidence, of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, of money laundering and bank fraud, of false statements and perjury.
Did someone say false statements? On the eve of the Mueller anniversary, as presidential mouthpieces are gearing up to tell us there’s no there there, the president was forced to file a new financial disclosure report that confirms his payments to his lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen, payments that were not previously disclosed. Within hours of the filing, the Office of Government Ethics – part of Trump’s federal government – referred the matter to the Justice Department as a possible false statement under federal law. There is so much here here with this crew that it’s spilling over beyond Mueller’s probe.
It didn’t work for Nixon when he tried to stonewall the Watergate probe (which went beyond one year). It didn’t work for Clinton when he tried to delay the Lewinsky probe (which ended up with Kenneth Starr pitching impeachment on Capitol Hill). And it won’t work now that the Trump story has made it into federal court. We are closer to the end of the investigation than to its start. The leaks about negotiations between Mueller’s people and the Trump team over a presidential interview are proof of that. This is not going to be an endless summer.
So the special counsel’s investigation must continue until his work is done, until every last witness is questioned, until every open lead is tracked down and until everyone who merits indictment is charged. It must continue because the man leading it has shown through his storied career of public service, as well as his past year as special counsel, a combination of prudence and productivity that ought to remind reasonable people everywhere that none of this is a waste of time.
So happy anniversary, Robert Mueller. Keep learning more about what really happened here and, when you are ready, as soon as you can, share what you can with the rest of us. History remembers Archibald Cox much more fondly than Richard Nixon. And it will remember you much more fondly than Donald Trump– no matter what Rudy Giuliani or Devin Nunes or Sean Hannity say – and no matter how many more of the president’s men are incriminated or indicted in the coming year.