In a matter as serious as the investigation into the Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, the Justice Department has to ensure that all Americans have confidence in the integrity of its findings. The decision by deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein to name a special counsel in the inquiry, who will operate with broad independence, was the right call.
Rosenstein’s choice, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, must get to the bottom of how Russia influenced the election, whether there was any collusion with the Trump campaign, and whether any crimes were committed in the process. In light of developments over the last few weeks, Americans also need to know whether the president attempted to thwart the Russia probe, or the related FBI investigation into former national security director Michael Flynn.
Mueller was widely praised during his legal career, and it’s hard to imagine a figure whose findings would be more likely to earn bipartisan respect. As it happens, the only blot on Mueller’s record came in Boston. As a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office in Boston, his minor role in the saga of the FBI’s relationship with James “Whitey” Bulger has never been fully explained. Still, his appointment drew bipartisan praise Wednesday.
His appointment comes amid a flurry of leaks and troubling developments. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that in February the president had asked the former FBI director, James B. Comey, to drop the Flynn investigation. Comey demurred. He was fired last week, a move that Trump frankly acknowledged was related to the Russia investigation. After the firing, Trump appeared to threaten Comey, demanding that he keep quiet.
With Trump, it’s never totally clear where incompetence stops and misconduct starts. But his actions have created a pattern that certainly looks like criminal obstruction of justice.
The probe of the underlying issues — Russia’s meddling and any potential collusion — also continues. Former Trump campaign officials, including Flynn, Roger Stone, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort, have become the subject of the FBI’s investigation. If those men have done nothing wrong, as they maintain, then they should all welcome Mueller’s appointment, since an exoneration from him is likely to carry significant weight.
In the hours after the news of Mueller’s appointment, some of the loudest praise came from congressional Republicans, a striking reversal from a party that had largely resisted calls for a special prosecutor. “Great selection,” tweeted Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. But the selection of a special counsel should not take any pressure off the Congress to conduct its own inquiries. Investigating potential wrongdoing by a president of their own party is the last job that many Republicans want. But just as the Justice Department has stepped up, so must Congress.