Jurisprudence

Remember Robert Mueller?

Now that the midterms are over, his investigation will roar back to life.

Robert Mueller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves after a closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The midterm elections are over. That means it’s Mueller time, again.

Following Justice Department guidelines, law enforcement actions that could influence the outcome were put on pause in the weeks leading up to Election Day. All eyes are now back on special counsel Robert Mueller, as there will likely be new developments in his investigation into ties between Russian government officials and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. And if what’s past is prologue, the path ahead looks especially perilous for President Donald Trump, his son Don Jr., Trump confidant Roger Stone, and other close associates.

In anticipation of the coming storm, we should expect stepped-up efforts by the president and his supporters to sabotage Mueller. We got a taste of these tactics last week, with the exposure of an inept Twitter troll’s apparent attempt to pay women to falsely accuse Mueller of sexual misconduct. Though I have never met Robert Mueller, this trickster appears to have tried to use his Surefire Intelligence operation to enlist me in his scheme. I immediately forwarded the suspicious email from Surefire Intelligence to the special counsel’s office.

It’s too soon to tell, but this type of seemingly corrupt endeavor to obstruct the investigation could result in criminal charges. Recall that Mueller has already used his authority to prosecute those who intentionally interfered with his investigation. Indeed, members of the Trump legal team have admitted that the president himself is under investigation by Mueller for obstruction of justice. Polls indicate bipartisan support for the special counsel. But upholding the rule of law is not a popularity contest. Congress needs to pass legislation to protect Mueller, on the principle that no one is above the law, not even the president.

Trump knows he’s under legal scrutiny. Nevertheless, he keeps lashing out, repeatedly raging that the investigation is a “WITCH HUNT.” He’s likely reacting this way because Mueller has been so successful in such a short time.

Yet Mueller may be a victim of his own success. It is hard for the public to appreciate the gravity of the special counsel investigation due to its breadth and complexity. There is a new nonpartisan organization, Protect the Investigation, that tracks and presents Mueller’s progress in an easy-to-follow format. The group’s goal is to “educate the American people about the importance of the special counsel investigation and its current findings.” The numbers tell the story. Since his appointment by Rod Rosenstein in May 2017, Mueller and his team have charged 32 individuals and three entities with nearly 200 federal criminal offenses. He has secured guilty pleas from six offenders, and three of them have already received prison sentences.

These felons are high-level officials. Among the guilty are those who had a leading role in the Trump campaign or held a senior position in the Trump White House. This includes Michael Flynn (the president’s former national security adviser), Paul Manafort (the chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign), Rick Gates (the deputy chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign and inaugural committee), and George Papadopoulos (a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor).

Also, two of the indictments accuse Russian nationals and officials of unlawful election interference, including hacking into the Hillary Clinton campaign’s email system and coordinating with entities (thought to be WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0) to spread those illegally obtained emails. Recently published emails between Roger Stone and Trump campaign chief executive Steve Bannon could provide a missing piece of the puzzle connecting those Russian hackers and Trump officials.

Mueller should also take some credit for additional spinoff criminal charges. In what may cause the president the most trouble of all, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to several federal offenses. Most importantly, Cohen implicated the president in two campaign finance violation counts related to hush payments made just before the 2016 election to adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was also granted immunity by federal prosecutors. With this witness cooperating, they should be able to follow the money.

In other words, get ready, because President Trump could be relentless in his attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation. He may fire Rod Rosenstein or replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Either move would undermine the Mueller probe.

Even though the Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives, the new Congress will not be sworn in until early January. In the meanwhile, our current elected officials must step up and protect the rule of law. While many Americans are exhausted from the midterm elections, we must remain vigilant. The time is right to ask Congress to pass legislation to protect Mueller.

The good news is that protective legislation is ready to go. In April, with a bipartisan vote of 14–7, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then refused to bring it to the full Senate floor, contending, “This is not necessary, there’s no indication that Mueller is going to be fired.” Such a claim wasn’t credible then, nor is it credible now. Currently House Democrats have been pushing for similar legislation.

If the current Republican-led House and Senate fail to act now to protect the investigation, in January, under the leadership of a new Speaker, the House can introduce the proposed legislation and begin to hold hearings. With public pressure, after House passage, McConnell might also allow for a Senate vote. Hopefully, by then, it will not be too late.