“The President went on to say that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.”
–Former FBI Director James Comey to the Senate Intelligence Committee
“The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation…including: any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).”
–Justice Department letter appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel
The president has claimed a measure of relief—okay, “total and complete vindication”—after James Comey confirmed in Senate testimony that Mr. Trump himself is not under investigation in the Russia connection case. According to Mr. Comey’s notes of his meetings with the president, Mr. Trump insists he hasn’t done anything wrong but if any of his “satellite associates” did do something wrong, it would be good to find that out. The important thing, President Trump repeats, is that he himself is not a target of the probe.
The conventional wisdom out of Washington is that the president is a political neophyte stumbling from one crisis to another. But when it comes to legal battles, Mr. Trump is an experienced combatant. Trump biographers have noted that the future president was mentored by attorney Roy Cohn, an avatar of legal evil whose life’s work included hounding homosexuals and suspected communists, representing mobsters and financial titans, and protecting Trump family interests. Cohn beat back repeated federal attempts to jail him and died from an AIDS-related illness in 1986, but he lives on in the president’s brain. If you’re gaming Trump v. Mueller, think Roy Cohn, not the hapless New York corporate lawyers currently being shoved out front as cannon fodder.
The Roy Cohn method is to fight until the last dog dies and that’s precisely what the president wants. For Mr. Trump knows that a war with the special counsel is at hand. Taking a page from the Clintons’ Whitewater playbook, Trump surrogates have started blasting Mr. Mueller as Democrat-linked and unfit for office. Mr. Trump has served notice that anyone can be thrown under the bus—it would be “good to find out” if any of his associates did anything wrong, he tells the then-FBI chief—and Trump friends note that even Mr. Mueller is not safe from being fired. None of this is an accident.
As for Mr. Mueller, like Mr. Trump, it’s not in his character to back away from a fight. Mr. Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps and commanded a rifle platoon in the Vietnam War, receiving the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. A Republican, he served in high Justice Department criminal prosecution posts and took over the FBI one week before 9-11. He’s a serious, straight-arrow prosecutor facing the biggest case of his lifetime. He’ll go where the evidence takes him and is assembling a formidable team to get him there.
Whether the president obstructed justice in his entreaties to Mr. Comey is a sideshow. 28 § 600.4(a) of the Code of Federal Regulations specifically empowers Mr. Mueller to deal with obstruction of justice, but Mr. Trump’s side of the story—and even Mr. Comey’s side of Mr. Trump’s side of the story—leaves room for reasonable doubt about the president’s intentions. Absent evidence of crimes at the center of the special counsel’s mandate—links to the Russian government—Mr. Mueller won’t take the president toward impeachment solely based on an ambiguous obstruction case.
The fact that Mr. Trump is not himself “under investigation,” as he has been insisting for months, is good politics, but a straw man in criminal law. If evidence emerges, anyone can quickly come “under investigation.” We are at the end of the beginning of the Russia connection case, not the beginning of the end. Mr. Mueller takes over at an early stage of the probe. He’ll be following the money trail. And he’ll be focusing on those satellite associates in orbit around Planet Trump.
We have a pretty good idea which satellites Mr. Mueller is looking at: former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner; Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer; former campaign manager Paul Manafort; and campaign advisers Carter Page and Roger Stone. All have connections to Russia-related projects, operatives or money.
The Trump White House will be able to monitor Mr. Mueller’s probe by tracking his interviews, document requests and subpoenas. If any of the Trump satellites have committed crimes, Mr. Mueller will explore whether they have anything interesting to say about the big boss, and if so, he’ll seek to turn them into cooperating witnesses in exchange for avoiding prison.
The independent counsel probe into the Clintons and Whitewater is instructive. After a lengthy investigation, prosecutors determined that five people were at the center of the corrupt Whitewater land deals: Bill and Hillary Clinton; banker Jim McDougal and his wife, Susan; and Clinton lawyer Vincent Foster. Prosecutors managed to flip only one: Jim McDougal was convicted of fraud and agreed to testify against the Clintons, but died before a case could be made. Susan McDougal kept her mouth shut, served a stiff prison sentence and was pardoned by President Clinton. Vincent Foster committed suicide. The Clintons spent eight years in the White House, but the Whitewater case took a long, winding path to Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, presidential perjury and obstruction, impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate.
President Clinton assembled a powerful legal and PR team and fought off the Whitewater corruption charges that could have removed him from office. Yet it’s hard to argue his scandal management was a success. President Trump faces a similar challenge: the Mueller inquiry is sure to be aggressive, and it has the legal authority to be wide-ranging, but presidential character is destiny.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org