The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the agency’s Russia investigation adds a measure of integrity and calm during a time of tumult in Washington.
It cools the nascent – and premature – talk of impeachment that had started to build following President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and reports that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to drop an investigation into the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Mr. Mueller, appointed Wednesday evening by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, brings a sterling reputation for maturity and nonpartisanship to the task of investigating possible collaboration between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government during the 2016 election.
On a more fundamental level, the arrival of Mueller raises hopes that the heated questions in Washington will now be addressed by an independent and thorough inquiry – in short, findings of fact, and a chance to get beyond unnamed sources and unsubstantiated claims.
That could allow the nation to pause, get back to the business of government, and put its partisan differences aside while the high-stakes investigation moves forward. The inquiry has no time limit, and could go well beyond a year.
“Whatever Bob Mueller finds will be the product of deep research, probity, and methodology," says Jane Harman, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic member of Congress. "It's what the country needs to move toward healing."
In fact, the Justice Department’s announcement of Mueller’s new role – as part of an investigation that Trump referred to Thursday as a "witch hunt" – almost immediately changed the tone in a city where pundits and some politicians have been harking back to the Watergate era for comparisons.
In his wild-and-woolly first four months in the Oval Office, Trump has played the outsider disrupting the norms of presidential conduct in ways that have both delighted his fans and alarmed his detractors.
But whether Trump has broken any laws or violated the Constitution is as yet unproved.
And now, the beginnings of a drumbeat toward impeachment by a handful of Trump critics has been tamped down by the Mueller appointment. Even before the former director’s return as special counsel, experts cautioned against getting ahead of the facts about Trump, including suggestions that he may have engaged in potentially impeachable actions, such as obstruction of justice.
Watergate comparisons premature
“I think we’re a little ahead of the evidence right now,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Professor Schier also cautions against leaping to comparisons with Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.
“With Watergate, you had White House officials testifying before Congress and in court that there was a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice involving the president and several of his top aides – not just talk, not just a sentence or a fragment of a sentence, but a series of coordinated conspiratorial actions,” says Schier. “We’re not there yet.”
President Nixon, in fact, was never impeached; he resigned before the full House could vote on articles of impeachment approved by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee. Only two presidents have been impeached, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Both were acquitted by the Senate, where the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict.
Impeachment, unlike a court case, is a political process. The Constitution lists “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as offenses worthy of removing a president, vice president, or other “civil officers of the United States” from office. Members of Congress interpret those requirements however they wish.
But in reality, the law also plays a central role, says Jens Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
“Those debates about whether or not something is a high crime or a misdemeanor – those take place in a legal context,” says Professor Ohlin. “I think it’s a function of our highly legalized culture – not just our political culture, but our Culture with a capital C – that there’s a hunger for the precision that the law offers.”
Many questions of public policy are often articulated by average citizens in legal terms, he says.
“They want to know, what does the law say about this, and what are standards that are articulated in the law, and what would a court do if it had this question before it,” Ohlin says. “For that reason, a lot of the discussion that people have been having is, would this constitute obstruction of justice under one of the various federal statutes that criminalizes obstruction of justice.”
Trump’s firing last week of Mr. Comey raised the question of obstruction of justice, especially after Trump acknowledged in an NBC interview that he was considering “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey. Another possible example of obstruction of justice arose this week in a leaked memo by Comey that said Trump had asked him to end the federal investigation on Mr. Flynn. He faces scrutiny over financial ties to Russia and Turkey, among other issues.
Sighs of relief from GOP
On Capitol Hill, Mueller’s appointment as special counsel brought sighs of relief from Republicans and a sense of "finally!" from Democrats.
Daily crises from the White House have rolled onto the Hill with the force of successive tidal waves, seeming to overwhelm lawmakers at times. For Republicans, the multiple crises have become a huge distraction from their agenda, including health-care and tax reform. They worry that their opportunity to get things done is slipping away.
Democrats have been sounding alarms about Americans losing confidence in their government, and US allies losing confidence in Washington – especially after reports that Trump had shared highly classified information with top Russian officials during an Oval Office visit last week. Democratic lawmakers have urged Republican colleagues to “stand up” to the president and “put country above party.”
Some liberal activists remain unconvinced that the Mueller appointment is enough. Indeed, as an executive branch appointee, Mueller can be fired by Trump – just as Comey was. But if that were to take place, the comparison to Watergate would draw ever closer. That may not be an analogy Trump wants to keep invoking.
Trump nonetheless lashed out Thursday via Twitter and in a press conference against the FBI investigation now led by Mueller.
Trump also engaged in “what-aboutism”: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” he tweeted twice in three hours.
Trump did not provide examples of “illegal acts” by either his 2016 campaign opponent and his predecessor’s administration, though critics of both have a ready list, including: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and allegations of “pay to play” during her time as secretary of State; and, under President Obama, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
Outside the White House though, many in Washington echo the view that an orderly inquiry can bring a needed settling to the Washington drama.
"A lot of people will find lots of comfort” in Mueller’s appointment, said Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, speaking at a Washington Post forum Wednesday night. In a city that "doesn't work," Senator Sasse said, the FBI can become one institution that regains the confidence of Americans.
"I want the Bureau to be an institution that the American people can trust,” he said. “I want … the men and women who are public servants in that institution [to] know they're doing meaningful work for their neighbors. And it needs to be protected from politicization."