Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his high-octane staff of investigators have many advantages over U.S. senators. Mueller, a former FBI chief, prosecutor and chief of Justice Department’s criminal division, knows how to pin down a witness. He knows a bogus claim of privilege when he sees it, and in any event, can put witnesses in front of a grand jury and compel them to answer (unless they plead the 5th). As a result, he’ll be able to extract answers to questions that went unanswered over the past week of hearings in the Senate Intelligence Committee:
- Did President Trump ask National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene in the Russia investigation? To persuade then-FBI Director James B. Comey to spare Michael T. Flynn from prosecution?
- Did Attorney General Jeff Sessions discuss with the president his reasons for firing Comey?
- Did Sessions solicit a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein that provided a pretext for firing Comey?
- Did Sessions know the real reason that Comey was fired? Did Rosenstein?
- Why did Sessions omit his meetings with the Russians from his security clearance paperwork?
- Did Sessions understand that in stepping back into the case, he was violating his recusal that explicitly barred him from involvement in “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States”? Did the president insist that he violate the terms of the recusal letter?
Mueller may also get to question Jared Kushner about his contacts with Russians. (What was said? Why did he omit the contacts from his security clearance paperwork? What was the purpose for trying to cut out the intelligence community from discussions with Russia?)
Mueller will be able to find direct witnesses to the RNC platform committee discussions and determine who from the Trump team prevailed upon the committee to change the plank on arms for Ukraine. He’ll be able to determine what monies Paul Manafort, Flynn and others may have received from Russian sources.
Mueller has the chance to subpoena financial documents from all of these figures and the president, shredding the veil of secrecy that surrounds the president’s finances.
He’ll find out whether, immediately upon entering office, the Trump team set out to lift sanctions. He can put national security adviser H.R. McMaster under oath to explain what Trump told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the infamous Oval Office meeting.
The notion that Trump and his flunkies can conceal from Mueller what really occurred, just as they did from U.S. senators, is delusional. Moreover, even if witnesses are inclined to take the 5th, Mueller can offer immunity. And, yes, unless he takes the 5th Amendment, too, Trump can be compelled to testify as well — and can be held in contempt if he does not respond to questions.
Trump and his cadre of enablers are obsessed with the news cycle and with how the hearings “play” to his base. Mueller is beyond the news cycle and indifferent to spin. It will all come out in the course of his investigation, and almost certainly be set out for all to see in a report. He can recommend prosecution to the man who appointed him, Rosenstein. While it is up to the House to impeach and the Senate to remove a president from office, Mueller can lay out the factual predicate for such action, including material not directly related to Russia’s interference with the election. That information may contain information regarding the president and/or other participants (e.g. Sessions, Kushner, Manafort, Flynn). If anyone lied to investigators or to Congress under oath or on government forms signed under penalty of perjury, or if anyone committed financial crimes involving the Russians or others, Mueller can and will include that as well.
Trump has, for now, been warned against ordering Rosenstein to fire Mueller, an action that could well trigger a GOP mutiny and the start of impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, Trump at some level must understand that Mueller has the potential to destroy his presidency and set off a series of criminal proceedings the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate. Trump is powerless to stop that — unless he arranges Mueller’s firing, hands out pardons like candy and thereby dooms his presidency anyway. This will not end well.