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Mueller investigation should be protected

November 22, 2018

If there ever was a time for lawmakers to formally protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of possible Russian collusion and election interference, this would be it.

In the weeks leading up to the midterm election, Mueller’s investigation had mostly faded from the public’s attention. President Donald Trump was focused on the midterms, and no one expected Mueller to make any news before the election, even if the investigation continued in the background.

But the midterms have passed, and Trump quickly turned his attention back to the Russia probe. First, he ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the investigation since he played a role in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Technically, Sessions resigned — but only after Trump asked him to resign.

Next, Trump appointed Matthew G. Whitaker as acting attorney general. This has proved problematic for a variety of reasons, the least of which being Whitaker’s qualifications. He did serve as a U.S. attorney in Iowa for five years during President George W. Bush’s administration. But he came to that position with little experience, listing a personal-injury case and a contract dispute between a dry cleaner and grocery store as his most significant legal work.

He has served on the board of a patent company that federal regulators accused of fraud. The company, which promoted the existence of Bigfoot and the possibility of time travel, has shut down.

This speaks to his qualifications, or lack thereof, for such an important office. But more disconcerting for the ongoing Mueller probe is that Whitaker, who served as Sessions’ chief of staff, has been a vocal critic of the special counsel investigation, which he now oversees.

During a 2017 appearance on CNN, Whitaker outlined different ways to undermine the investigation. This included a recess appointment to replace Sessions and then having the acting attorney general gut Mueller’s budget to the point it ends the investigation.

He has also said there is “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, which is the central question of the investigation.

Whitaker also has ties with Sam Clovis, who served as a chief policy adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign and also is a witness in the investigation.

Meanwhile, Trump has continued to rage against the investigation, taking to Twitter to lambaste it, calling Mueller “highly conflicted.” The investigation, to date, has led to a number of indictments and guilty pleas, including from former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort; his deputy, Rick Gates; and Michael Flynn, a former general and campaign adviser who briefly served as national security adviser.

And to top it all off, days ago, Trump said he would not interfere with Whitaker if he does try to limit the probe. Clearly, Whitaker should recuse himself from overseeing the probe, just as Sessions correctly did.

Mueller has yet to present his findings on the question of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, or the possibility of obstruction of justice. It’s imperative the investigation is allowed to conclude, wherever the findings land. The state of Maryland has filed a motion to reappoint Rod Rosenstein as acting attorney general, which would restore independence. And certain political realities may hamstring Whitaker from derailing the investigation.

But Congress could do its part by passing a law that protects Mueller. For example, outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has supported a bill that would allow any fired special counsel to challenge that action before a panel of federal judges. But it can’t get a vote.

Trump has decried the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt,” but the issues under investigation are central to national security and collective faith in our elections. No one should make any assumptions or draw premature conclusions about the outcomes of this investigation. But the investigation also needs to be completed, and a report submitted to Congress and, ultimately, to the American people.

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