The White House treated a guilty plea from former national security advisor Michael Flynn last week like the beginning of the end of a special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
But if history is any guide, it’s far from over. And suggestions that it might be help set the stage for Trump’s supporters to argue next year that the investigation is dragging on and needs to be shut down.
After Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Trump attorney Ty Cobb released a statement that seemed designed to hint that things were wrapping up.
“The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion,” he said.
It was not the first time Cobb has made such a statement, either.
In mid November, Cobb said that he expected the White House’s interviews with Mueller’s team to be done “shortly after Thanksgiving.” Not long afterward, he adjusted that end date to shortly after New Year’s in another interview and he’s reportedly offered staff in the West Wing reassurance that Mueller will finish soon and exonerate the president.
Republican politicians are also playing to Trump’s restlessness.
Key GOP lawmakers have indicated that they think the parallel congressional investigations into Russian meddling should be wrapping up soon, before they turn into fishing expeditions. “I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done this year,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the top deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in mid-October.
That may have already led Trump to try to intervene in the congressional investigation, with Republican Sen. Richard Burr acknowledging that the president expressed to him a desire for Congress to wrap up its own investigation “as quickly as possible.” And if Trump thinks Congress can finish soon, then it follows that Mueller can as well.
There’s almost no scenario in which this is a reasonable expectation, however.
The FBI began investigating the Russian government’s attempts to meddle in the election in July of 2016. The Senate intelligence committee began looking into the question as well in January of this year; the Senate judiciary committee, in February; the House intelligence and oversight committees, in March. And Mueller was appointed in May. Depending on how you look at it, the Russia investigation is anywhere from six to 17 months old. Either way, that’s nowhere near the finish line.
For comparison’s sake, the Watergate investigation of President Nixon lasted about two years from the day of the break-in to the beginning of impeachment hearings. The special counsel on the Whitewater investigation under the Clinton Administration lasted four years and eight months. And the special counsel on the Iran Contra affair under the Reagan Administration took more than six and a half years from his appointment to the final report issued to Congress.
The best-case timetable for Trump would the part of Ken Starr’s investigation that focused on whether President Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. That took about seven months.
But that was a pretty simple question compared to the Russia investigation, which has to take into consideration the Trump Organization’s byzantine financial structure, the chaotic and loosely organized Trump campaign’s organizational flowchart, Russia’s allege attempts at covert manipulation and the complex personal dealings of major characters like former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Flynn himself.
This is not an investigation that will reach a sudden denouement with the discovery of a missing 18 and a half minutes on a White House tape or a navy blue dress. Arguing otherwise is mostly a political feint.