Will we get clarity from Mueller’s Russia probe… or secrecy?
What should we expect from the special counsel’s criminal inquiry into Russian interference in America’s 2016 presidential election? Maybe not much, if past experience is a guide. In fact, it could be a boon for Donald Trump. It could turn out, intended or not, to further obscure what happened.
The consensus view in Washington, regardless of people’s views on Trump, is that Robert Mueller was a great choice as special counsel. He is seen as fair, capable, independent, and he has been given a broad mandate.
The problem, if Mueller follows the path of the last special counsel, is not so much in what he might find as in what he chooses not to disclose. Any findings that don’t lead to indictments, regardless of how revealing, could be withheld. That’s what happened last time, in the Valerie Plame special counsel investigation. Secrecy wasn’t what we needed then, and it certainly isn’t now. Take the issue of Trump’s income tax returns: Short of an indictment we may never hear word one about them, regardless of what they show.
Here are a few of questions driving at what I have in mind, focusing on the tax returns.
Q. Does special counsel Robert Mueller have Trump’s income tax returns yet? Has he asked for them? Has he hired experts to deal with them?
Mueller’s mandate includes investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government” and the Trump campaign, and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” That’s an invitation to look at his returns. Mueller was chosen on May 17. He has had time to get started. One would assume that Trump’s tax returns are among the first pieces of evidence he would go after. Has he? Reporters should ask him. Now.
Q. Are Trump’s income tax returns available as a matter of course to Mueller or could he somehow be blocked from seeing them?
Republicans on Capitol Hill have shown no interest in Trump’s income tax returns; they have blocked Democratic attempts to get them. Trump won’t want to give them up, that much seems clear, and he may maintain that his tax returns aren’t relevant to the Russia probe. Can he get away with that?
Q. Will the public know the status of events – that is, will we know when Mueller asks for the tax returns (if he does), or when he has them in front of him, or which experts he has looking them over? And on issues aside from tax returns, how much will Mueller make public as he goes along?
Mueller has won much praise for being aggressive and fair but not, as far as I know, for confiding in the media. In some major probes, investigators are seldom heard from. The public learns who is testifying only because of press stakeouts, or via leaks—or not at all. This probe, however, is obviously not an ordinary criminal investigation. The public has a right to know—one way or the other—the findings of the investigation, either to substantiate or refute allegations that Trump is somehow beholden to Russian interests.
Q.Will Mueller issue a report of his findings? Perhaps not, if he follows the practice of a previous special counsel.
In the Plame case, also a high-level, White House probe, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald placed charges against only one person, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an assistant to vice president Richard Cheney. Libby was indicted, convicted and went to prison. That was it. In a lengthy press conference toward the end of his investigation Fitzgerald said that as a special counsel – as opposed to independent counsels in earlier years – he did not have authority to write a report – and that he did not want such authority. Others said he did have such authority, but Fitzgerald was unyielding on the point. He said his job was to charge someone or be quiet. Earlier in his investigation Fitzgerald said there was a cloud over the vice president, but he never explained what he meant. How frustrating. Some called the Fitzgerald investigation a sham – a probe that took a long time, apparently uncovered a lot, and revealed next to nothing. The question today is whether Mueller is as committed to secrecy as Fitzgerald was, and, if he is, what happens next.