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Could Narrow Scope of New Special Counsel Miss Wider Corruption in Trump White House?

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It has been another extraordinary 24 hours in the nation’s capital. In the biggest news of the day, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as a special counsel to oversee a probe into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The move came one day after reports emerged that President Trump had personally asked former FBI Director James Comey to end the agency’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying both publicly and privately about his contacts with Russian officials. In another new development, The New York Times reports Trump picked Michael Flynn as his national security adviser even though Flynn had warned Trump’s transition team that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign. We speak to Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Los Angeles.

It’s been another extraordinary 24 hours in the nation’s capital. In the biggest news of the day, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as a special counsel to oversee a probe into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The move came one day after reports emerged that President Trump had personally asked former FBI Director James Comey to end the agency’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying both publicly and privately about his contacts with Russian officials.

Earlier this morning, President Trump responded on Twitter, writing, "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed! This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" unquote.

In another new development, The New York Times reports Trump picked Michael Flynn as his national security adviser even though Flynn had warned Trump’s transition team he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign. Meanwhile, McClatchy is reporting one of Flynn’s first decisions as national security adviser was to reject an Obama-era military plan that would have been opposed by Turkey. The Pentagon wanted to use Syrian Kurdish forces to help retake the city of Raqqa, but Flynn rejected the plan. Turkey has long opposed the U.S. partnering with Kurdish fighters. Trump eventually agreed to the plan, after General Flynn was fired.

This all comes as Democrat Al Green of Texas became the first member of Congress to openly call for Trump’s impeachment on the floor of the House. Even some Republicans are now broaching the subject. Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan said impeachment might be merited if Trump urged Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post has revealed an explosive comment made last year by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In a private conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, McCarthy said, quote, "There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," referring to the presidential candidate and California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Ryan urged colleagues not to repeat McCarthy’s explosive claim. Ryan said, quote, "No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family here," unquote. McCarthy now says the comment was a bad attempt at a joke.

Well, to help make sense of all these developments, we’re joined by Marcy Wheeler, the independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net, from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Marcy. Well, talk first about this new development, the appointment of a special counsel—not announced by Jeff Sessions, because the attorney general had to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia, given his own relationship or meetings, previously undisclosed, with the Russian ambassador to the United States, but announced by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, yesterday, he made Robert Mueller, as you said, the former FBI director, special counsel. And the scope of the investigation is rather interesting, because he described it as the investigation that Jim Comey confirmed in earlier House Intelligence Committee testimony, so the investigation into whether Trump and his campaign associates have ties to Russia.

The appointment of Mueller is good on a lot of points. Oftentimes they appoint an assistant U.S. attorney for an existing U.S. attorney, and that really wasn’t possible in this case, because Trump has fired them all and not replaced them. So, but by bringing in Mueller, he’s somebody who—a small list of people who would immediately have credibility both within the FBI and within the Justice Department, because he used to be part of them. And I’m sure, within FBI, the agents are taking a lot of reassurance, having just lost Comey, that Mueller is coming in. They know him. They’ve worked for him. So that’s great.

And he is—you know, he can claim to be bipartisan. He can—he has stood up to Dick Cheney in the Stellar Wind confrontation in 2004. So, on all of those levels, he is a pretty good choice. The only kind of black mark on his record is the handling of the anthrax investigation in 2001. But aside from that, we should be able to expect him to conduct an independent, solid, professional investigation here. My biggest concern is with the scope that Rosenstein gave to this investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we get to that, what do you mean, the anthrax investigation of 2001?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. Remember in 2001, right after 9/11, Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle were sent live anthrax, and a number of people died. And that was—that was a huge terrorist investigation. I mean, it wasn’t as big as the 9/11 one. And they effectively chased down a scientist who wasn’t the culprit. They had to pay out a big settlement with him. They chased down another Fort Detrick employee. He probably wasn’t the guy, either. So, that case probably still has never been solved, and there have been ongoing —I mean, one of the FBI agents in that case actually sued Mueller, saying that he wasn’t given the resources to carry out the investigation. So that is, as I said—I mean, Mueller, for a lot of reasons, is a great pick here. The biggest concern I have is that anthrax investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about, for a moment, what does it mean to be special consul—special counsel versus an independent prosecutor, an independent investigator—counsel versus prosecutor.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, this is not Ken Starr. For those of you old enough to remember, Ken Starr was investigating everything and everywhere and couldn’t be fired. And that—the law that authorized such investigations was ended, on the logic that they encouraged kind of wide—they encouraged investigators to keep investigating until they found anything, such as the consensual relationship between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. So, that’s not available anymore.

What this is, Robert Mueller reports up through DOJ’s chain of command. He reports to Rod Rosenstein. He has broad authority to prove his own subpoenas, that kind of thing. But—and if Rosenstein refuses to approve certain things, then he has to go to Congress and tell them about it. But ultimately, Mueller could still be fired by Donald Trump. He still is technically working for Donald Trump.

And so—and the one other concern I have is, beyond the scope—I mean, a key part of the scope question is whether or not Mueller will be able to investigate the firing of Jim Comey. Now, there is language in yesterday’s order that says he can investigate anyone obstructing his investigation. But if you recall the CIA leak case, which is another close parallel to what we’re seeing, Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed in 2003. Scooter Libby was found guilty of obstruction of justice in 2007. At each stage of kind of a shift in that investigation, Fitzgerald got his shift approved from Jim Comey. And it would be awkward if Mueller felt like he had to get an obstruction investigation into the firing of Comey approved by Rod Rosenstein, because, after all, Rod Rosenstein kind of put the fig leaf on that firing by claiming that there was a good reason for it.

So, you know, it is not complete independence. Trump can still tamper with this if he feels like he wants to. But Mueller has both the credibility and the respect among all of the people he’ll be working with and the ability to largely drive the investigation. We’ll see things like budgets in a couple of weeks, but it’s a good sign. There are still reasons to be vigilant, I think, on the appointment process.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcy Wheeler, talk more about this scope that you are so concerned about, who Mueller will be able to investigate and who he will not be able to investigate.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I’m not so sure that it’s a who. But, as I said, the investigation is for Trump and his campaign associates, whether or not they coordinated with the Russian government. We like to think of the hack of the DNC, but anything else, tampering with the election, or obstruction into that or anything that arises out of that.

Now, you spent, I think, two or three minutes talking about Mike Flynn’s Turkish connections, right? We know that Mike Flynn is a key focus of this investigation already, because he took money from Russia, because he hid meetings with Sergey Kislyak, because he then lied about it. So, Mike Flynn, for his role—for his relationship with Russia, is a key part of this investigation. The question then becomes: What about that Turkish side? Which is, in many ways, more damning, because he got more money, because the change in his own policy views was far more dramatic, because we’ve seen a change in U.S. policy—we took the Turkish side rather than the Kurdish side in some military organizations—in some military operations. And so, does that count?

Or does Paul Manafort’s kind of garden-variety corruption involving Ukrainian oligarchs count? And that one, as far as we know, is being conducted not in Virginia, which is where the existing campaign investigation is. Would Mueller be able to protect the investigation into Manafort that might be in New York, or investigations into money laundering through real estate in New York, or investigations into the Guccifer figure that publicly was reported in San Francisco, although I think there are aspects of it elsewhere? So, any one those other investigations may provide a thread that would be key to the election investigation. If Paul Manafort was doing certain things during the election because of his prior ties to Russian-backed Ukrainian oligarchs, that may explain why Trump was so favorable to the Russians and so on and so forth.

And you see what I mean, that this—there are a number of different corners of this investigation. The one I didn’t mention is the one into the actual hack in Pittsburgh. And any one of them might be important to the question of the Trump associates’ role in the election. And I just want some kind of assurances that Mueller will also be able to protect those other ones, that aren’t technically part of the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, your comment on The Washington Post revelation of this comment made last year by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy? In a private conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans, McCarthy said, quote, "There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," referring to the presidential candidate and then the Republican congressman from California. Ryan urged colleagues at the time not to repeat McCarthy’s explosive claim. Ryan said, quote, "No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family here." Now, first, the Republican leaders in the House denied this, but then a tape came out that The Washington Post got, and McCarthy is saying, oh, he was just joking.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. He’s using the same excuse Trump uses, right? Trump says, "Well, I was just joking when I said that Comey should end the investigation into Flynn." And Paul Ryan is taking the same approach that he is with Trump’s investigation. He’s sort of sticking his fingers in his ears and hoping it will go away and relying on loyalty to party over real concern. So, I think it is just another piece of this story in which people are acting the same way: pretending it’s a joke when it probably wasn’t, hoping that GOP loyalty will take precedence over real concern for what the heck Trump was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, yesterday Trump spoke at the Coast Guard Academy graduation. Now it’s become the fodder of late-night comedians, who are comparing his speech and sort of showing similarities to Legally Blonde, the speech Reese Witherspoon gave. But in that speech, he said—and Reese Witherspoon didn’t say this in her commencement address as Legally Blonde—no other politician in history has ever been treated worse or more unfairly by the media. Your response?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. Ronald Reagan, JFK, Abraham Lincoln—those politicians were shot. I think the notion that Trump would compare himself to politicians who, in Abraham Lincoln’s case, in JFK’s case, gave up their life as—in service as president is pretty offensive and is—and, you know, on top of that, Trump doesn’t admit that there is a legitimate reason for the press to pursue these questions, and he’s trying instead to, you know, turn himself into the victim. You know, his supporters and what—you know, for him to survive, he needs to ensure he retains the support of his voters long enough such that Republicans can’t turn on him. And that kind of language is precisely what worked for them in the election, and so I expect to see him continue it. I expect to see him pretend that he’s the victim here, because the people who put him in office really like that language.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to correct the comparison: The speech that was being compared to Legally Blonde was the one at Liberty University. Marcy Wheeler, any final comment, especially around why you think a special counsel was set up, what you think was the motivation? Do you think that the Justice Department, even the Trump administration, realized this is a tipping point, Republicans are joining the call for impeachment, and they had to stem the flow of this, so this was the next worst thing for them or the next best thing?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I had argued that Dana Boente conducting this investigation—he’s the only U.S. attorney in the country right now—wasn’t necessarily a bad position. Rod Rosenstein may have agreed with me. But Rod Rosenstein, I can imagine two different motivations on his part. One is, he looks terrible. You know, he provided the fig leaf for the firing of Comey. And, you know, he was a guy who, prior to that, had a really good reputation, again, bipartisan—people in both parties loved him—a solid, stand-up justice guy. And this really devastated his reputation.

Add in the Comey fact, the fact that Comey made clear he has notes from these meetings, not just the substance of the meetings, that Trump asked him to back off of the Flynn investigation, but that Comey has notes. And anybody who’s been around DOJ long enough to see Jim Comey’s prior experience while he was deputy attorney general, but even in the last few years, knows how Comey works, and knows that when Comey prepares a CYA, prepares evidence of corruption that is going on, then it’s going to not just be solid and effective and convincing, but it’s going to be very dramatic. So, at such time as Comey gives testimony to Congress, it’s going to be huge TV. And I think Rod Rosenstein, whatever other motivations he had, I think he realized that was coming and that, you know, knowing where Comey’s pushback is going to go, this was the best way to anticipate that.

Rod Rosenstein also has to testify before Congress today. So I think, you know, we will see down the road precisely what his motivation was, but I could see how Rod Rosenstein recognized that he could no longer deny the political implications of this and the need to protect this investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, The New York Times reporting that President Trump had asked James Comey at that Valentine’s Day meeting, that February 14th meeting, in the Oval Office to consider imprisoning journalists who report on leaks of classified information?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. And, you know, that may still happen. Jeff Sessions wants to do it. Dana Boente may still do it with WikiLeaks, setting up the precedent to do that. I think, you know, Trump—again, it feels very Nixonian. The way he survives, if he does, is to try and badmouth the press and try and make himself into the victim. I don’t think that’s going to work this time around. But I do suspect he’s going to continue to ratchet up efforts against the press, except to the degree that the people who would prosecute it really are rooting for the press here, not rooting for Donald Trump. That’s not—that’s not necessarily a good look.

But look, I mean, everyone at FBI, I presume, wants to conduct the investigations they’re currently conducting, wherever they are. And they’re going to be less interested in Donald Trump’s witch hunt against journalists, knowing that the only way they, the FBI, get space to conduct their investigation is to have stuff like that coming out in the press on a daily—you know, at this point it’s like on an every 10 minutes basis, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marcy Wheeler, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties, runs the website EmptyWheel.net. We’ll link to your new post with the headline, "The Scope of the Special Counsel Appointment is Totally Inadequate."

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, we’ll go to Rome, Italy, to speak with a Mexican reporter who’s been threatened with death herself repeatedly. When she goes to Mexico, she needs bodyguards 24 hours a day. But she is going to remember a friend, a well-known journalist in Mexico named Javier Valdez, who was gunned down this week in Sinaloa. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," Nina Simone. If you want to see the video behind that music, you can go to democracynow.org, as we showed Chelsea Manning and Oscar López Rivera. Both became free people yesterday. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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