By Bob Dreyfuss RollingStone
By now, it’s clear: Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russiagate and related matters, is a determined, relentless inquisitor whose investigation could lead to criminal charges against a wide range of Donald Trump’s staff, associates, former campaign officials and members of his immediate family. And, when its work is complete, it isn’t out of the question that Mueller’s team could deliver a report triggering Trump’s impeachment.
Trump, of course, is lashing out at Mueller, the congressional panels, his own attorney general and Department of Justice, the FBI and the media over what he called, in a tweet, “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people.” He’s warned that any move by Mueller to investigate his or his family’s business dealings might be a red line that could lead him to fire Mueller. He’s toyed with ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from Russiagate because of his own set of questionable meetings with Russian officials in 2016, since by firing Sessions he might be able to appoint a replacement who could order the firing of Mueller. And he’s reportedly considered using the power of presidential pardons to prevent Mueller from prosecuting any members of his team – including, remarkably, seeking to pardon himself. None of this, according to numerous experts, sounds like the way someone who’s innocent of any wrongdoing would act.
From the start, Mueller had a broad mandate – and it isn’t limited to the question of Russia. The statement appointing Mueller authorized him to investigate “any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Trump,” along with “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” plus “any other matters within the scope” of the law. That statement also gave Mueller the job of looking into efforts by Trump or others to impede or block the inquiry.
What that means, and what’s scariest for the White House, is that Mueller isn’t limited just to the question of collusion between Trump and Moscow. Mueller might suspect that the ties between the Trump organization and the allied financial and real estate empire run by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Russian banks and various Putin-linked oligarchs, even going back years, might help explain Trump’s ties to Russia – making that fair game for the special counsel’s office. In addition, should any evidence of other crimes emerge while looking into the Trump-Kushner businesses – such as financial misdeeds, involvement in money-laundering or improper real estate deals, for instance – well, that too could lead to indictments.
And then there’s the question of obstruction of justice. Even if Mueller can’t prove collusion with Russia and doesn’t find any financial or real estate wrongdoing, he can still nail the president if he determines Trump tried illegally to obstruct the investigations that are underway – not only by the special counsel, but by the FBI itself, the Department of Justice and the several congressional committees that are looking into Russiagate.
Though Mueller’s office is mostly independent of the Department of Justice and the White House, Mueller still operates under the oversight of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who controls the special counsel’s budget and who, under certain circumstances, can overrule his decisions. On the other hand, the department’s regulations covering the work of a special counsel say explicitly that the counsel isn’t “subject to the day-to-day supervision of any official in the department,” and it adds that Rosenstein must give “great weight” to decisions taken by Mueller. If Rosenstein acts to block something that Mueller is doing, he’d be required to explain why he’s doing so to Congress. Rosenstein has stated publicly, and in testimony before Congress, that he intends to give Mueller wide latitude to carry out the investigation and not to interfere with it except under extraordinary circumstances.
Theoretically, Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, could fire him. However, he told Congress he would only fire Mueller for “good cause,” adding, “I am required to put that cause in writing. If there were good cause I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”