Donald Trump is fond of describing himself as a “law-and-order” president. Suddenly, however, the fate of his presidency could be decided by a man who embodies that characterization: Robert Mueller, a true lawman’s lawman.
The irony is thicker than a column on the White House’s North Portico. And for Trump, his party and the republic, the stakes could not be higher.
The by-the-book former FBI director is now running the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. Several senior lawmakers, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, believe the probe may have moved from a counterintelligence investigation to a criminal one.
There are seemingly a myriad issues Mueller, FBI chief for 12 years until September 2013, must look into and analyze. One is Trump’s alleged pressing of Mueller’s successor at the FBI, James B. Comey, whom Trump fired, to drop the agency’s probe of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Democrats and some Republican lawmakers say that action could amount to obstruction of justice. Also on the list is whether Trump’s campaign associates colluded with Russia as it sought to interfere with the election.
The list of allegations continued to grow Friday as the president was stepping onto Air Force One for an extended overseas trip. One report, from The New York Times, alleged that Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office that firing Comey “relieved” pressure on him due to the bureau’s Russia probe. Another report, from The Washington Post, citing multiple sources, said a senior White House official who is close to the president is a person of interest in the investigation. And McClatchy reported that the FBI is also exploring whether White House officials tried to cover up its Russia ties.
Firing Comey, lawmakers and sources say, helped pave the way for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to decide he had to appoint Mueller as a special counsel to lead the Russia probe. That means, in professional basketball terms, Trump essentially forced LeBron James off the opposing team only to have him replaced by Michael Jordan. And, to be sure, that’s exactly how legal experts describe Mueller.
“Bob is a superstar. The deputy attorney general could not have found a more qualified person to this investigation,” said Michael Madigan, a former assistant minority counsel to Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., on the Watergate Committee.
“There is no doubt that [Mueller’s] investigation will be very thorough and very honest,” Madigan said. “He is a straight arrow. And he’s never been the least bit political.”
Stephen Ryan, a former Senate Governmental Affairs Committee general counsel and assistant U.S. attorney, called Mueller “among the very few choices [Rosenstein] had who could actually quell all of the animus.”
“Director Mueller has conducted many, many investigations in his career,” Ryan said. “He’ll do this by the book. He’ll do this in a way that will leave no stone unturned.”
That’s why some Republicans are whispering that Trump and anyone, as one source put it “in the shrapnel zone of this investigation,” should be very concerned about what Mueller might find and what happens next.
“The president fired Mr. Law-and-Order, and now his mentor and buddy is taking over the investigation,” said Evan Siegfried, a GOP political operative, calling Comey’s ouster a major misstep by Trump.
“I can’t tell you the number of Republican friends who have called me up and said, ’what’s wrong with this guy?’” he said, referring to Trump.
Should the president be more concerned after Mueller’s appointment than before? “Absolutely,” Siegfried replied before a reporter even finished the question.
“Because Director Mueller has the legal authority as the special counsel to look at anything he and his staff find as part of this,” Siegfried noted. “Remember that Kenneth Starr got to Monica Lewinsky by way of the Whitewater real estate investigation.”
In conservative circles, it’s not just Siegfried and his pals.
“People who once defended the indefensible during the Obama years are now outraged by the indefensible of the Trump years,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote last week. “Every day though, a new self-inflicted wound from the president ushers forth. I hope the president and his advisors keep a level head and realize it would be far better for him to resign than risk impeachment.”
“President Trump needs an intervention. Without that, we need his resignation,” Erickson wrote. “Republicans who are reflexively defending the self-inflicted wounds of this President have no need for him with [Vice President] Mike Pence in the wings,” he added, urging GOP members to “save their credibility.”
And Russ Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, in recent days has called for Trump to immediately be removed from office, in large part because his handling of the many scandals surrounding him shows he is unfit for the office of the presidency.
Douthat doubts that Trump is capable of colluding with Moscow or fundamentally understands why his actions with Comey might have amounted to obstructing justice. Rather, he sees an “incapacity to really govern” as a reason Pence and two-thirds of Congress should oust the commander in chief via the 25th Amendment.
Should Mueller’s investigation implicate Trump, governing — including convincing lawmakers to pass his agenda — almost inevitably would be impossible. That’s what’s riding on the career lawman’s investigation, which legal experts believe will last months as he methodically interviews sources — many multiple times — and analyzes reams of documents, emails, phone and travel records, and text messages.
“If I’m on ‘Team Trump’,” says Siegfried, “in the short-term, I’m relieved that a special counsel will keep this out of the headlines for a while. But longer term? I’m really anxious.”
Before Mueller’s appointment, “you had the [Sen.] Bob Corkers and even [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell delivering a message to the White House: Get your house in order — and fast,” Siegfried said. In short, should Mueller implicate the president or even some of his closest aides in wrongdoing, “there is no [domestic] agenda,” he added.
Consider that Corker and McConnell were not alone last week in taking a different tone about Trump’s — largely self-inflicted — troubles.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Thursday said it was appropriate that a special counsel had been appointed to lead the Russian meddling probe, a change of tune for the top House Republican, who had, until last week, mostly defended Trump’s actions as president. Ryan stopped short of calling for that probe to examine whether Trump obstructed justice — but, notably, the speaker did not rule it out.
That came two days after Ryan backed House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz in requesting Comey give lawmakers any memos he crafted about his conversations with the president.
Even before Mueller had begun his work in earnest, rank-and-file Republican members were already discussing the possibility of Trump facing impeachment proceedings.
“If the allegations are true, yes,” Michigan Rep. Justin Amash said Wednesday.
“I will follow the facts — wherever they may lead,” Graham pledged.
That very well could be in the Oval Office, experts say.
“Director Mueller himself, very likely, if it’s warranted, and it would be at the very end, would have to sit down and talk to the president,” Stephen Ryan said, in part to determine Trump’s intent in private conversations with Comey.
Before he jetted off for the Middle East and Europe, Trump issued denials he will have to convince Mueller are true.
“No,” Trump told a reporter Thursday during a joint press conference with his Colombian counterpart when asked if he pressed Comey to end the Flynn probe. Regarding the Russia collusion allegations, he said: “There was no collusion.”
As Trump continues his five-country swing, back home Director Mueller is on the case.
Rema Rahman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.