Robert Mueller, the former Director of the FBI and special counsel in the soap opera that is the Russia collusion investigation, has been on the case for ten months now. His team of attorneys and Washington prosecutors has interviewed dozens of witnesses, scanned hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, sent an unknown number of subpoenas to members of Donald Trump’s campaign for information or testimony, and is in the process of scheduling an interview with President Trump himself. Through it all, Mueller’s camp has shown impressive self-discipline; unlike Kenneth Starr’s inquest against President Bill Clinton two decades ago, the special counsel’s office is keeping its work in-house. The only leaks making their way into the press are from witnesses or friends of witnesses who have a self-interest in saving their own skins.
While Bloomberg News reported this week that Mueller is close to finishing his probe on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice, it’s unlikely the wider investigation will end before Americans go to the polls this November. To the consternation of Trump and his personal attorneys, all of whom had an unrealistic expectation of when the Russia investigation would be done and over with (Ty Cobb, one of those attorney’s predicted closure by the turn of the New Year), Mueller is going about this in a calm, diligent, and measured way. He understands that Washington is littered with political landmines, where even minor prosecutorial mistakes can tarnish his personal reputation and poison whatever findings his office releases.
The last thing Mueller needs or wants is to look too partisan or political in who he charges with a crime and which crimes he decides to file.
Politicization is what largely killed Ken Starr’s obstruction of justice investigation against Clinton in 1998. That inquiry, which Starr took over in 1994 and stepped away from after presenting his recommendations to Congress four years later, was commonly depicted as ruinous for the country and intensely partisan. Clinton was able to beat the charges in the U.S. Senate partly by making the trial a referendum on Starr’s credibility rather than the president’s criminal behavior. Mueller is certainly no Ken Starr, but that doesn’t mean the danger isn’t there. Mueller is the most high profile prosecutor in the world today; he can’t afford to make any error that will allow Trump, Republicans on the Hill, personalities on Fox News, and Trump’s diehard followers to paint the entire probe as an expensive political crusade to remove the president from office. True, Trump has been calling the inquiry ‘a witch hunt’ for as long as Mueller has been on the job, but large segments of the American electorate aren’t yet buying that argument.
Will Robert Mueller indict President Trump for conspiracy or obstruction of justice (if that’s even legally permissible)? Will Congress seek to impeach and remove him from the Oval Office? Or will the president survive a grueling investigation just like Bill Clinton did twenty years ago? These are three questions that nobody can answer at this point – anyone who tells you definitively one way or the other is lying to your face and making things up to stir trouble.