Eli Lake is right: The DOJ’s appointment of widely-respected former prosecutor Robert Mueller to lead the special inquiry into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia is a reprieve for a Trump Administration in crisis—a reprieve that it will almost certainly squander, but a reprieve nonetheless.
How do we know? Because the responses from Trump’s most dogged critics on the Russia question betray a kind of anxiety about the Mueller appointment—an anxiety that the no-nonsense law enforcement wise man will lower the temperature in Washington without actually uncovering enough damaging material to bring down the President.
Take, for example, Josh Marshall declaring that while he has confidence in Mueller to identify and expose any criminal activities undertaken by Trump or his associates, he won’t be able to prosecute the real Trump-Russia wrongdoing: a labyrinthian “conspiracy” which may not even involve any illegal behavior.
It is critical to understand that the most important details we need to know about the Russian disruption campaign and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with it may not be crimes. Indeed, I would say that the crimes we’re likely to discover will likely be incidental or secondary to the broader actions and activities we’re trying to uncover. Just hypothetically, what if Russia had a disruption campaign, Trump campaign officials gave winks and nods to nudge it forward but violated no laws? That’s hard to figure but by no means impossible. (Our criminal laws are not really designed for this set of facts.) The simple point is that the most important ‘bad acts’ may well not be crimes. That means not only is no one punished but far, far more important, we would never know what happened.
And here’s David Frum in the Atlantic making a similar objection:
The special counsel will investigate whether people in the Trump campaign violated any laws when they gleefully leveraged the fruits of Russian espionage to advance their campaign.
By contrast, what happened in plain sight—cheering rather than condemning a Russian attack on American democracy—will be treated as a non-issue, because it was not criminal, merely anti-democratic and disloyal.
Since the summer before the election, Trump’s critics have been suggesting or sometimes stating outright that Russia is involved with a criminal conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of Trump’s inner circle. But now that an unimpeachable bulldog prosecutor has been named to probe these very allegations, the critics seem to be trying to move the goalposts, saying that the real problem isn’t criminality, but the sleaze and outlandish behavior of the Trump campaign more generally—behavior that was already obvious to voters when they went to the polls in 2016, and will be even more obvious when they go to the polls in 2018.
Trump’s outrageous and indefensible conduct around the Russia investigation—his firing of Comey to attempt to quash the inquiry, along with the subsequent allegations that he demanded Comey’s loyalty early on and leaned on him to drop the investigation of Mike Flynn—cries out for a special counsel, and Mueller, by all accounts, is a consummate choice. Any wrongdoing related to the Trump campaign, from the President himself to bottom-feeders like Carter Page, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
But the Trump-Russia hounds now seem to be realizing the limits of the scandal they have been pursuing—yes, maybe someone like Manafort will go down for money-laundering, and yes, Trump had shady deals with Russian banks as a real estate tycoon in the 1990s. But this is simply not as big of a scandal as they would like it to be.
Mueller seems well-equipped to do what the country sorely needs right now: Determine if there was criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and hold any wrongdoers accountable. He is not, however, equipped to do what Trump’s most relentless critics seem to want: Launch a wide-ranging and essentially political investigation into Donald Trump and his associates with the aim not of bringing the matter to a resolution, but of creating a steady stream of media frenzies that paralyzes an administration they loathe.