The formidable special counsel has time, money and an all-star legal team on his side. But he's never taken on an investigation like this before
In Washington, the ‘first law of holes’ is one of those shopworn maxims that are so familiar, they need not be spoken. It’s like what you should do if you want a friend in the capital: ‘Get a dog’ goes without saying.
But maybe things are different where Donald Trump came from. And maybe that’s why he didn’t know what to do when he found his young presidency in a small hole involving contacts between a few of his underlings and Russian officials.
Now he’s learning the local folklore the hard way. The first law of holes is, if you’re in one, stop digging. Three times, Trump heard assurances from former FBI director James Comey that the Russia investigation wasn’t aimed at him. Instead of putting his shovel down, though, Trump worked it furiously. According to Comey’s sworn testimony, Trump pushed the G-man for a public exoneration, and when Comey demurred, he may have pressed his case with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. Unsatisfied, he fired Comey in ham-fisted fashion, then reportedly boasted to Russian visitors that he did it to take pressure off the investigation. Now he’s in the hounded condition of various predecessors: struggling to regain control of the agenda, lashing out at aides, shouting at television sets and peppering his dig-the-hole-deeper tweets with all-caps exasperation.
He blames his enemies, but guess what? All Presidents have enemies. Successful ones try to outsmart them. Trump’s own actions have turned a small hole into a yawning abyss: a special counsel’s investigation that could run from the Oval Office to Trump Tower and command headlines for the next year or more. Trump has traded the anguished Hamlet Comey for the adamantine Marine Robert Mueller, the Justice Department ramrod who remade the FBI after 9/11. As special counsel appointed in the wake of the Comey firing, Mueller has one job, no deadline and bottomless resources, and he is assembling an all-star team of veteran prosecutors whose expert backgrounds go beyond counterintelligence to include money laundering, corporate fraud and the limits of Executive Branch power.
Sensing the trouble he had dug himself into, Trump tweeted, “You are witnessing the single greatest Witch hunt in American political history.” Perhaps all Presidents feel the same way if they find themselves under the withering gaze of a high-profile investigator. Whether called a “special prosecutor” in the Richard Nixon era or “independent counsel” in the Bill Clinton years or “special counsel” today, the specific powers change, but the overall effect is quite the same. Trump’s predecessors could tell him that such investigations are sometimes survivable, but they are not controllable. Trump is at the front end of political cancer treatment: live or die, it will be a draining, miserable experience.
But the President won’t go through it alone. The whole country will be dragged along. From congressional hideaways to country-club fairways, from newsrooms to lunchrooms, from skyscraper to silo, the realization is sinking in: this is going to be with us for quite a while.
So, like hurricane watchers dashing to the grocery store, Washington’s ruling Republicans are trying to jam through a health-care bill before the investigation inundates the capital. Decimated Democrats are squabbling over a party identity to give shape to their rising hopes. Interest groups, having geared up for fights over taxes and regulations, are pivoting to wage war on this new battleground. Out in America, meanwhile, many battered and anxious voters find themselves back at seemingly unmovable square one: Who, or what, can lead the country out of this sour patch of history?
It’s safe to say the investigation won’t be a source of national unity. With Internet speed, pro- and anti-Trump factions have created rational and plausible–yet utterly irreconcilable–histories of an investigation that has barely even begun. To Trump supporters, this is the story of an unconventional agent of change elected to break up a failed status quo. In their view, the elites, with help from their leaky minions embedded throughout the government, have turned on the new President to protect their own power. When Trump fired Comey in hopes of piercing the empty Russia balloon, Comey took his revenge in classic insider style: he arranged to have a friend leak memos that would prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And that turned out to be Mueller, a longtime Comey associate who, despite his straight-arrow reputation, has installed Democratic donors on his prosecutorial dream team.
The veteran Washington knife fighter Newt Gingrich, after initially praising the Mueller appointment, has swung to this version of the story with gusto. He sicced a team of researchers on the question of political activity at the Department of Justice and at law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller had been working. The researchers found this: of more than $600,000 in campaign donations from employees at the two institutions to major presidential nominees in the 2016 election, less than $10,000 went to Trump; the rest went to Hillary Clinton. Gingrich sent the numbers to the White House. “It’s just one more realization of the desperation of the deep state to do everything it can to prevent change,” Gingrich told TIME.
Trump’s foes tell a very different story. Theirs involves a billionaire whose undisclosed business interests may involve rich Russians as financiers and customers. After winning a narrow victory in an election plagued by Russian hacking, the new President surrounded himself with aides and advisers who had undisclosed Russian contacts. And when the FBI opened an investigation, the President abruptly fired the bureau’s director. Comey’s subsequent testimony about his awkward interactions with Trump raised the specter of obstruction of justice–made meatier by the President’s admission that he was trying to make the Russia issue go away. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the matter because of his role with the Trump campaign, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had no choice but to name a special counsel, and the veteran Mueller was an obvious choice.
Is there enough common ground between those two realities to give hope of a clear resolution? The answer hinges on the behavior of the two men now lashed together in a grimly familiar Washington drama. Mueller must be careful and measured and honest and open. If he finds offenses, he must lay them out clearly, with every t crossed. If he finds none, he must issue equally clear and compelling exonerations. America is hungry for fair dealers: Mueller can do his part by proving himself to be one.
Trump’s task is more difficult. To lead the country out of the deep hole he has excavated, he must be patient and disciplined, two qualities so far missing in the unpredictable and instinctive disrupter. Indeed, his White House advisers and GOP leaders in Congress are bracing themselves for a worst-case scenario in which the President trades his shovel for a backhoe by firing Mueller. Two years after his late-in-life entry into politics, Trump has yet to play the role of a healer. His gift for locating sore spots and poking at them is undeniable, but part of a President’s job is to bring people together.
Trump might start by thickening his own skin. The criticism he is taking now is part of the job–and not so different from the attacks he dished out gleefully when he was a private gadfly demanding to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Another of those tried but true Washington maxims should govern Trump’s future tweetrums: he’s in the kitchen now, and he has to learn to take the heat.
The special counsel is, like Trump, the scion of a wealthy family, raised at a boarding school and educated in the Ivy League. But the life choices of Robert Swan Mueller III, 72, suggest a decidedly different temperament from the one that occupies the Oval Office. Unlike Trump, who says he has few if any personal heroes, Mueller’s path was marked by a profound admiration for a role model he met at Princeton, a student a year ahead of him named David Spencer Hackett.
“I played lacrosse with David,” Mueller explained last year in a speech at West Point. “He was not necessarily the best on the team, but he was a determined and a natural leader.” Hackett’s decision to join the Marine Corps, and his death in 1967 while rallying his platoon during an ambush in Vietnam, moved Mueller to follow in Hackett’s footsteps. “Many of us saw in him the person we wanted to be,” Mueller said.
Trump once joked with radio shock jock Howard Stern that chasing women while risking STDs was his version of Vietnam, adding, “It is very dangerous.” He might have chosen a different analogy if he had served as Mueller did. Commissioned in the Marine Corps and trained at Army Ranger School, Lieut. Mueller led a rifle platoon in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Wounded in combat, he received a Bronze Star with a V for valor as well as a Purple Heart and two Navy Commendation Medals.
Mueller told his West Point audience that his military experience instilled in him a desire to continue to serve his country. After earning a law degree from the University of Virginia and learning the ropes as an associate at a large law firm, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, where he rose to chief of the criminal division.
In 1989, Mueller moved to Washington, where he soon took charge of the entire Justice Department’s criminal division. Under his watch, department lawyers prosecuted major cases involving terrorism, organized crime, drugs and money laundering. Although his voter registration said Republican, Mueller earned the confidence of leaders in both parties. In 1998, Democrat Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. Attorney for Northern California. Republican George W. Bush called him back to Washington as Deputy Attorney General, then picked him to lead the FBI in 2001.
Mueller’s first official day at the Hoover Building was Sept. 4. A week later, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington plunged the bureau into one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. Mueller’s challenge was to transform a primarily domestic law-enforcement agency into a global counterterrorism force–while breaking down cultural barriers to information sharing and pulling the paper-pushing bureau into the digital age. Many agents found Mueller to be bullheaded as he shook up personnel rules and rammed through technology updates. And he made mistakes, including a botched investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks in D.C., Florida, New York and New Jersey, in which an innocent man was hounded in the press while Mueller and his agents ignored the real killer. But overall, in the judgment of FBI historian Ronald Kessler, no director in the modern era “has had a greater positive impact on the bureau than Mueller.”
As director, Mueller worked closely with Comey, who was appointed Deputy Attorney General in 2003. Together, they threatened to resign in 2004 over a White House plan to preserve a program of warrantless wiretaps. Their frantic dash to the bedside of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to ward off a delegation of White House arm twisters on a mission to save the program was a heroic high point for friends of Mueller and Comey–and an example of their sanctimony to their detractors. Either way, they won: Bush agreed to make changes to the program. When Mueller’s extended term at the FBI ended in 2013, few were surprised that Obama installed Comey in his place.
Praise was widespread and bipartisan for Mueller’s appointment on May 17 as special counsel. But that enthusiasm was not shared at the White House. As the gravity of his miscalculation sets in, Trump has been lashing about for someone to blame. Attorney General Sessions, one of his earliest supporters, offered to resign after a bawling out from Trump, who feels that he would not be in this pickle if Sessions had not recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Trump is also furious with the flip-flopping Democrats who went from hating Comey (they blamed his public hand-wringing over her emails for Hillary Clinton’s loss in November) to hailing him as a martyr. “The Democrats should be ashamed,” Trump tweeted. “This is a disgrace!”
And then there’s Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who wrote a memo at Trump’s request that the White House briefly used to justify the Comey firing, then appointed the special counsel. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” the President tweeted. “Witch hunt!” That June 16 outburst caught Capitol Hill Republicans flat-footed. “Is this part of a new plan?” an adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan asked a White House aide. Of course not, the aide answered. “Do you think we would plan to have the President of the United States implicate himself?”
Friends report that the wrathful President discussed the possibility of firing Mueller, an idea that horrifies White House advisers and terrifies veteran congressional Republicans. The last President to try such a thing was Nixon, who sparked the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 by ordering the ouster of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Beyond the disastrous politics of such a move, it’s unclear how Trump could execute this step. Justice Department regulations tightly govern the removal of a special counsel, which can be done “only by the personal action of the Attorney General” and only for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or for other good cause.” With Sessions recused, the power of removal passed to Rosenstein–but his involvement in the Comey firing could force his recusal as well. Rosenstein has assured a Senate committee that he would not carry out an unjustified firing. “If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says,” he averred. If Rosenstein refused to fire the special counsel, the order would go next to another Senate-confirmed Justice official. With the Solicitor General’s office still unfilled, that leaves Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who hasn’t said publicly how she would respond.
Trump’s alternative to this uncertainty might be to exercise his constitutional authority to rewrite the Justice Department regulations, giving himself the firing authority. Such a step would smack of despotism in a capital that cherishes checks on power.
For now, the White House is trying to compartmentalize the investigation, while such allies as Gingrich launch counterattacks. Rather than fire Mueller–and risk sparking a backlash–the plan seems to be to discredit the investigation with voters. The Republican National Committee is cranking out messages designed to make Mueller and Comey the new Hillary and Bill. Their friendship snarls Mueller in a flagrant conflict of interest, the attack goes, and Mueller’s team is rife with partisans. At least three of his recruits have written checks in partisan campaigns, including two–James Quarles and Jeannie Rhee–who gave the maximum allowable amount to Hillary Clinton for her race against Trump last year.
A fact of Washington life that ought to be a maxim, but isn’t: not every important moment gets a headline. One such moment was a largely overlooked exchange in May between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Comey, who still held his job at the FBI.
“It’s not uncommon to seek and use tax returns in a criminal investigation?” asked the Senator, himself a former prosecutor, who was well aware of the answer.
“Not uncommon,” Comey replied on cue. “Especially in complex financial cases, it’s a relatively common tool.”
Whitehouse went on to ask about Russian strategies for compromising U.S. business partners by giving them highly favorable deals and to explore the use of shell corporations in laundering dirty money through untraceable transactions with American companies. “And that’s not a good thing?” Whitehouse asked in conclusion.
Comey: “I don’t think it is.”
Investigations like Mueller’s have a way of moving from Topic A to Topic Z, from Ozarks real estate to an intern’s blue dress as one question begets another and clue leads to clue. The Senator’s questions and Comey’s answers mapped several paths by which an investigation of Trump’s actions as President–Was he trying to obstruct justice?–could become a dissection of the inner workings of his private business. The tax returns he has steadfastly refused to publish. The conflicting accounts he and his sons have given about Russian investments in Trump projects. The sharp rise in the number of Trump-branded luxury condos bought by shell corporations since his nomination, as first reported by USA Today. And so on.
For now, the leak-prone Administration has mostly gone quiet, the better to showcase displays of presidential normalcy. An infrastructure week. A summit with tech CEOs. “The media and the Democrats talk about Russia,” says Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. “The President talks about America.” Mueller-related questions are steered to outside counsel, part of a Sisyphean effort to professionalize the chaotic White House. Still, aides live in the shadow of the boss’s shifting moods.
On Capitol Hill, Vice President Mike Pence is driving Republican leaders hard to change the subject by passing legislation. Even as he hired attorney Richard Cullen–another Comey friend–to guard his own flank in the investigation, Pence shuttled between the White House and Congress, pleading for a win on health care to cheer the embattled President. But the Fourth of July recess loomed with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell still short of a majority for any Trump-blessed reform, leaving lawmakers to face the prospect of going home empty-handed while the President sulks with his Twitter.
It was tempting, as the wheels of another Washington investigation accelerated away from the station, to say that we’ve seen this all before, though never with a protagonist quite like President Trump. In his outsize personality and unmasked audacity, he’s making it clear that this all-too-familiar story has roots much deeper than even the most shopworn Washington lore. It goes back to the Greeks, who understood that the peril of kings was hubris, and that hubris was an invitation to the avenging goddess called Nemesis. In Robert Mueller, Trump may have found his.
–WITH REPORTING BY TESSA BERENSON, MASSIMO CALABRESI, MICHAEL DUFFY, PHILIP ELLIOTT, ZEKE J. MILLER and MICHAEL SCHERER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the July 03, 2017 issue of TIME.