Noah Harrison: Don't let partisanship threaten Mueller

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - 5:41pm

 

The past couple months have been eventful for special counsel Robert Mueller. In his broad investigation into President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and its possible connections to the Russian interference in the election, Mueller and his team have indicted several former Trump aides including former campaign chair Paul Manafort and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, but his investigation has been subjected to intense and increasingly partisan scrutiny.

Mueller has faced hostility from the White House since his appointment as special counsel in May, with President Trump repeatedly disputing the need for a special prosecutor, and at times denouncing Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt.”  In contrast, Republican lawmakers, at least for the most part, initially praised Mueller’s appointment and voiced support for his investigation. Yet in recent weeks, criticism of Mueller, and the FBI in general, has been amplified, with many Republican members of Congress and conservative political commentators questioning the competence and impartiality of not only Mueller but also former FBI Director James Comey and Andrew McCabe, the current deputy director of the FBI.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, called for Mueller’s resignation from the Russia investigation, while Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Florida, proposed a counter-investigation into Mueller and his team. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, was more brazen, asserting that Mueller is “out for a scalp” and wants to be “a hero of the left,” while also accusing McCabe of being “disrespectful” to the Republican Party. Conservative pundits cite the fact that several of Mueller’s hired lawyers are registered Democrats as evidence of Mueller being biased, and Fox News contributor Jesse Watters insinuated Mueller is acting like a potential Democratic candidate for president. 

These claims are fanciful at best, and downright delusional at worst. Mueller is a registered Republican (though his party affiliation is hardly related to his aptitude) and he earned a reputation for integrity during his long career with the Department of Justice and the FBI. There is no credible reason to doubt Mueller’s ability to run an independent and unbiased investigation.

But while this cadre of conservative critics represents the far-right wing of the Republican party, the tepid defense of Mueller provided by more moderate Republicans has enabled criticism of Mueller to spread from the fringe to the political mainstream, leaving his investigation on unstable ground as it enters a critical stage.

Naturally, Mueller, and the FBI in general, are not perfect. Some of the recent criticism of Mueller stems from reports that a member of Mueller’s team was dismissed for having sent anti-Trump text messages during the presidential campaign. Though some conservatives pointed to this revelation as evidence of the probe’s supposed bias, their argument ignores the fact that Mueller had removed the agent in question swiftly, and months prior to the report, which, if anything, serves as a testament to his commitment to carry out an impartial investigation.

Likewise, Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server drew the ire of both liberals and conservatives. Though Comey severely mismanaged the investigation through his unorthodox public disclosure of the agency’s prosecutorial recommendations and his consequential decision to briefly reopen the investigation in the days leading up to the 2016 election, his missteps do not constitute clear biases, and it is implausible that Comey’s actions were politically motivated.

Attempts to denigrate Comey’s reputation, which have reemerged since his controversial firing by Trump, and the efforts to discredit Mueller’s investigation, are politically motivated, largely unmerited and deeply troubling. The current campaign against Mueller represents an encroachment of extreme partisanship into the spheres of law and justice.

The congressional investigations into Russian election interference show signs of devolving into counterproductive partisan jostling and grandstanding. House Republicans reportedly are preparing to conclude their investigation to the objection of House Democrats. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation has been clouded by reports that President Trump pressured Senate Republican leaders to end their inquiries as quickly as possible. The uncertainty surrounding the congressional investigations underscores the importance and relevance of Mueller’s independent investigation.

Mueller has proven himself to be a fair and honest man fully qualified to lead the main investigation into Russian interference in the election and related matters. If President Trump and his campaign were uninvolved with Russia’s election meddling, his aides and allies should proceed with the utmost confidence that Mueller will vindicate him. However, Mueller must be allowed to thoroughly investigate and pursue charges as approporiate. 

It would be grossly improper to impede Mueller’s investigation on partisan grounds, and the possibility of Trump firing Mueller has received considerable media attention. However, given Trump’s repeated pledges to not fire Mueller, Mueller’s investigation is perhaps more greatly endangered by partisanship. Recent partisan attacks on Mueller’s probe are unwarranted, yet they threaten to unduly shake public confidence in the investigation. Partisanship must be blocked from the domains of law and justice if the law is to retain its sanctity and independence. Failure to do so could have profound consequences, for the Russia investigation and beyond.

 

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu