Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
The anniversary has now passed of one year since Robert Mueller was appointed as Special Counsel to investigate allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors as a means of winning the White House.
Now into its second year, the investigation continues with a focus on depth and meticulousness, not speed. Witnesses are still being interviewed – and in some cases prosecuted – and trials are scheduled for later this year. On both sides of the aisle, politicians want Mueller to move faster.
For Republicans, the investigation cannot end soon enough
For Donald Trump, the majority of Republicans in Congress, and the Conservative media, the investigation represents an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction into the real achievements of this presidency. Your author has lost count of the number of times the President has tweeted “NO COLLUSION”, or alleged the Special Counsel’s investigation is entirely surplus to requirements. Thankfully CNN kept a chart:
As the investigation has slowly proceeded, the White House has adopted an increasingly aggressive and hostile tone. The President’s favoured description started as “witch hunt”, but it has now graduated to “the greatest witch hunt in history”.
It’s hardly McCarthyism: 22 people and companies have been charged; 75 criminal cases have been brought so far; there have been 5 guilty pleas; and 1 person has been sentenced.
For the Trump legal team, which changes with unnerving frequency, the ongoing debate remains the extent to which to engage with the investigation. Trump’s current cast of lawyers are reportedly weighing options for testimony before the Special Counsel, and the President has in the past expressed a desire to testify directly before Mueller. Given a patchy track record of sticking to a script and abiding solely by fact, this option looks to be a dead end.
For Democrats, Mueller must conclude before Trump takes evasive action
With a President that is more frustrated than ever, executive power looks the most viable route out for the White House; it is the option that Democrats have feared the most, with Trump spiking the Mueller investigation before it has a chance to conclude and report its findings to Congress.
We have seen the first signs of this. The President started the week by announcing that he would demand an investigation into the FBI investigation into his campaign. Washington has become obsessed with when the Special Counsel will conclude, and Democrats feel they need to align their messaging ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections.
Independent of the outcome of the Mueller investigation, Democrats will already feel that a clear picture of this presidency has been painted. Messaging is therefore likely to focus not necessarily on collusion but corruption, withTrump filling not draining the swamp.
But the need to wrap up the investigation before the President kills it goes directly against the thorough approach required of Mueller. As much as Democrats and Republicans both jointly want the investigation to conclude – for diametrically opposite reasons – the ongoing indictments and plea deals prove the need for patience. Only yesterday, Michael Cohen’s business partner struck a plea deal that could have implications for Trump’s lawyer and the president himself.
So how does it all end?
The Mueller team has been watertight, with leaks only coming out of those who have been interviewed. In the current era of an entirely porous White House and Capitol Hill, that is a refreshing surprise. It also means that no one truly knows when or how the Special Counsel’s investigation will end. We do know, based on convictions and indictments, that Mueller’s first year has been extremely productive. That is a red flag for the White House, where there is increasing angst that all roads will eventually lead to Trump Tower.
The situation is less perilous for the Special Counsel himself than it is for Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, and Rod Rosenstein, his Deputy. Trump’s blatant distain for and direct interference into the investigation seems like a dare to both men to resign in protest. Installing ‘his own guys’ at the Department for Justice would be the quickest route for the President to make the Special Counsel’s investigation go away quickly and quietly.
This most dramatic of White House dramas remains ongoing. No-one knows when it will end or how. What seems certain is that the Special Counsel’s investigation will become a central theme in the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential election. For that reason, we can expect Republicans and Democrats to entrench themselves even further in their current positions. While Washington yells, the Special Counsel’s work continues.