Mueller is discreet, disciplined and on the President's caseby Sam Tanenhaus / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
As Republican leaders submit to Donald Trump, and the Democrats store ammunition for the 2018 midterms, all eyes turn to Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who since mid-May has been, almost invisibly, looking into the Trump-Russia connection. Such investigations can drag on for years. The Watergate break-in happened in June 1972. The “smoking gun” tape of President Richard Nixon confirming there had been a cover-up wasn’t released until July 1974 (Nixon resigned a month later). The first report on the Whitewater real estate deal that plagued Bill Clinton was published in 1992. Clinton was eventually impeached by the House of Representatives in December 1998.
But Mueller seems on a faster schedule. In six months, the net he has cast—dozens of witnesses, some sitting for day-long-interrogations—looks like a noose around the Oval Office. The first big break came on 1st December, when Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to “knowingly” making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI about his discussions with Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in December 2016; the main topic of their conversation was lifting the sanctions President Barack Obama imposed on Russia for tampering with the US election.
A year ago Flynn and the White House denied that such conversations took place. But intelligence officials had listened in—and told the press about it. Flynn then admitted that he had lied, not just to administration officials, but to the FBI. An admission of guilt from so important a figure would ordinarily cripple the first year of a presidency. But in Trumpworld the unthinkable is commonplace.
The president wallows in scandal. Why else hire Flynn in the first place? He was already lethally damaged goods, having been fired from running Pentagon intelligence in 2014 after squandering resources digging up “evidence” of non-existent plots involving “radical Islamic terrorism”—“Flynn facts,” as they became known. Both Obama and Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General in the first days of Trump’s presidency, warned him against Flynn, who was under federal investigation for accepting $530,000 from the Turkish government, which made him the paid agent of a foreign nation. But Trump, the heedless crackpot-in-chief, decided Flynn was just the guy for a job previously held by heavyweights like McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger.
Given Flynn’s misdeeds, the charge brought by Mueller seems light. Close observers suspect that Flynn is bait in a bigger trap. “Flynn undoubtedly is telling Mueller about any conversations he had with Trump or others in his inner circle regarding his contacts with Russia,” says Mimi Rocah, a federal prosecutor in New York. Rocah once worked under James Comey, the former FBI director whose abrupt dismissal by Trump, in May, led to Mueller’s appointment by the Justice Department. Flynn’s plea, Rocah says, indicates Muller “may be one step closer to an obstruction of justice charge against people higher up on the food chain.”
How high? Well, there’s Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who set the agenda of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak. There is Trump’s son, Donald Jr, and—higher still—Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn ostensibly lied to him about the Russia meetings. But what if Pence knew—or knows something else? Will Mueller question him? His powers are almost limitless. He is unlikely to summon Trump, though he has questioned the White House counsel. Meanwhile, the White House is advancing the sophistry, invented by Nixon after he resigned, that no president can be said to obstruct justice because he himself incarnates it, as the nation’s top law officer. It is all but an admission of guilt.
Mueller looms as Trump’s nemesis. He is formidable, experienced, and a model of probity. His operation is leak-free. News comes with the filing of official court papers. A report in the Washington Post on the “secretive nerve center” Mueller has set up described a nondescript local building, where rotating pairs and trios of prosecutors and FBI agents interrogate witnesses in a “windowless conference room,” while Mueller himself—lean, impassive, silver-haired, immaculate in his dark suit, silently observes.
Mueller is not just a good lawyer. He is “a leader of men.” Born into privilege and educated in elite schools, he was a Marine during the Vietnam War, decorated many times for valour. He later toggled between a “white-shoe” law practice and criminal law. He was appointed by George W Bush to run the FBI in September 2001—a week before the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center. Mueller began transforming the country’s top police force into an anti-terrorist intel agency, with results good enough that Obama kept him in the job.
Mueller’s approach today pulls together the many strands of this previous experience. His splitting-up of a sprawling investigation into small teams recalls the Marine platoons of the Vietnam paddies, no less than the bank-fraud scandals and anti-terrorist campaigns he has overseen.
Mueller has been consistently attacked by Trump and pro-Trump media, and said not a word in response. Instead he marches on. In early December, reports emerged that Mueller had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank records relating to accounts held by Trump.
The Flynn plea is just one capture in the larger war—and it is not too much to say that the health of the American republic may rest on the outcome.