Written by: Clodagh Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Politics, De Montfort University
As far as political tactics are concerned, the Trump administration’s preferred method of distracting attention from awkward stories is Shiny Object Syndrome – the deployment of surprising and shocking ideas and statements to muffle long-term threats that could catastrophically damage the administration if allowed to dominate the agenda. Given the torrent of juicy Trump-related stories that capture the news cycle daily, it’s all too easy to miss the one-year anniversary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment – and in turn, to forget the enormous significance of his ongoing investigation.
On May 17 2017, the former FBI director and Marine Corps platoon commander was appointed to lead an independent inquiry into possible election meddling by a foreign government. The probe includes an investigation of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with a remit to search for potential collusion with Russian agencies and operatives.
When it was set up, Trump said that Mueller’s investigation “hurts our country terribly”. There is no doubt that Team Trump, if not the man himself, was mindful of where such an investigation could lead. Pundits were swift to roll out the Watergate comparisons, not least because within Mueller’s first month on the job, Trump associates were publicly discussing the president’s desire to fire the prosecutor. Their hints were an eerie echo of Nixon’s notorious “Saturday Night Massacre” on October 20, 1973, when he ordered justice department officials to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. It failed to keep Nixon safe, hastening both his own political downfall and the nation’s march towards a constitutional crisis.
It’s possible that Trump, new to politics and equipped with at best a light grasp of history, may not have realised the resonance of his threats to Mueller. Today as in 1973, the president cannot fire the special counsel directly. Nixon ordered his attorney general to do so; when met with refusal and resignation, he asked his deputy attorney general, and then his solicitor general, Robert Bork, who complied. The decision was declared illegal by the US Supreme Court a fortnight later.
But all his Twitter rantings notwithstanding, Trump has not yet carried out a Saturday Night Massacre of his own, and so the Mueller probe rumbles on.
To date, there have been guilty pleas and indictments involving 19 people and three companies, but as far as we know it has yet to close in on Trump himself or even question him personally.
In April 2018, the media erupted with speculation when the Mueller team stated that Trump himself was a “subject” of their investigation, but not a “target”. Did this mean he couldn’t be indicted? The US Attorney’s Manual defines a “subject” as someone who is “within the scope” of the investigation. Hence, Trump supporters and detractors could take their respective comfort from the news that the president was unlikely to be indicted anytime soon, and was still under Mueller’s microscope.
But unfortunately for Trump and his supporters, the public in general seem to be behind the investigation. 61% of those polled in mid-March 2018 by Pew Research stated that they were “very” or “somewhat” confident that Mueller’s probe would be fair. Only 37% said they were either not very confident (19%) or not at all confident (18%). That roughly tallies with Trump’s average approval rating of just under 40% from the same time period.
Just a month after the Pew survey, a Washington Post/ABC poll found support for the investigation at 69%. This increase may be explained by the especially dramatic developments of April 2018, when the FBI raided the home and office of Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen. The poll took place as part of an investigation into Cohen’s alleged October 2016 payment of US$130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump in 2006. The FBI apparently acted on a referral from Mueller, and is now investigating Cohen for criminal conduct on a number of counts.
The sheer scope of Mueller’s investigation, on the other hand, is far wider, making an imminent conclusion highly unlikely. The White House clearly thinks so too, despite Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s recent assertion that Mueller would be done “in a week or two”. Another Trump lawyer, Ty Cobb, long advocated cooperation with Mueller’s team; he has been replaced by Emmet Flood, a famously adversarial lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.
With November’s midterm elections fast approaching, Trump will undoubtedly be keen to move the investigation along as swiftly as possible. While the probe won’t necessarily be a top issue for voters, it’s quite possible that the Republicans will lose their majority in one or both houses of Congress anyway – and since that would put the Democrats in charge of key congressional committees tasked with overseeing the executive branch, it would put Trump in a highly vulnerable position.
Whatever Giuliani thinks, Mueller is almost certainly nowhere near done. Flood may need to remind his new client that the Whitewater investigation, a sprawling probe into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s supposed shady investments in Arkansas, lasted for most of the Clinton administration.
It’s true that Mueller is unlikely to be facilitated indefinitely, not least because his investigation has already cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. Nonetheless, in such polarised times, it’s crucial that Lady Justice doesn’t peep from under her blindfold. If this means slow progress, then so be it. The investigation is more likely than not to celebrate its second birthday.
Clodagh Harrington does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.