With the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, the future of Donald Trump’s presidency has become significantly more precarious.
Since coming to office Trump has acted as if the post was an elected monarchy – and up to now, he has been cosseted in that illusion by a largely servile Republican party. But what differentiates the US presidency from a monarchy, even under these conditions, are the permanent institutions, made up of civil servants, prosecutors and lawyers. Trump derided them as “the swamp”, in which everyone was for sale. Now “the swamp” has struck back.
Trump compounded his firing of the FBI director, James Comey, by smearing his reputation and putting it about that the boss had lost the faith of the rank and file. That offended phalanxes of investigators with extensive skills and powers – not the sort of people you want to alienate.
Trump made matters worse by manipulating the newly appointed deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, in a half-hearted feint to make it look like Rosenstein had provided the impetus for Comey’s sacking.
Now it is Rosenstein who has hired Mueller to look into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. In short Trump’s high-handedness has backfired and he has many new reasons to worry, both institutional and personal.
Institutionally, a special prosecutor is harder to sack or sway than a regular justice department lawyer. He can be fired by the same person who hired him, Rosenstein (the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has recused himself on matters pertaining to Russian). But having been used once in humiliating fashion, Rosenstein is unlikely to bend to the White House’s wishes a second time.
Mueller’s specific job description tells him to carry on the investigation that Comey was overseeing plus “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”. That is open-ended. It will take in new developments such as Wednesday night’s report in the New York Times that the Trump team knew Michael Flynn was under investigation for working secretly as a lobbyist before they hired him as national security adviser.
The mandate can also encompass the question of obstruction of justice looming over Trump’s apparent efforts to get Comey to drop the Flynn case, and Comey’s reported memos about his conversations with Trump.
The personal factor Trump now faces is Mueller himself. He is highly regarded across the party divide in Washington. Unlike Comey he has not been tainted by the experience of a particularly tarnished presidential election.
Legal and law enforcement veterans rushed online to praise Mueller on Wednesday night. David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security, wrote on the Lawfare blog: “Mueller is experienced, knowledgeable, capable. He is utterly incorruptible. He cannot be intimidated. At this stage in his career, he has nothing to prove, no reputation to burnish, no axe to grind.”
That kind of reputation not only makes it very hard for Trump to fire Mueller. It is now clear beyond any doubt, that the investigation is deadly serious, and not a sideshow. And it is likely to help persuade still loyal but nervous Republicans that they might soon find themselves on the wrong side of history.