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WASHINGTON — “Relief. Weight has been lifted.”
That was the reaction of one Republican Senate staffer Wednesday night to the news of former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s appointment as a special counsel to independently investigate ties between Russian interference in last year’s election and President Trump.
It was a win for the rule of law, and for the stability of the country, in the eyes of many, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike expressed support for the move.
“I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, even as many other Democrats said that further steps such as an independent commission are needed.
“It means an extra layer of certainty in the process, and this third-party look provides a degree of independence that would not have been there otherwise,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. “Many people I’ve talked with at home are frightened and confused by the differing allegations currently out there, and this makes an independent judgment on what transpired that much more vital in maintaining trust in some of our nation’s highest institutions.”
But in private conversations, some Republicans were even more effusive about a feeling of hope that had broken into what seemed like day after day of bad news.
“I am hearing relief. People weren’t for a prosecutor a week or two ago. But [Comey’s] firing, combined with [disclosure by Trump of sensitive foreign intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov], combined with the Comey memo, and it seemed like whatever the truth is, it was hard to defend no investigation,” said one Senate Republican chief of staff.
“I think most people believe little comes of it. But this means it’s done right and above reproach. And let’s let the Hill keep working on other things like health care and taxes and stuff while credibly saying, ‘Look, Mueller has power and integrity and he will see what is there or not.’”
Democrats had expressed concern about the Russia investigation being compromised if it remained inside the Justice Department, which is overseen by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions officially recused himself from the Russia probe back in early March but then was involved in Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, which the president said was driven largely by his irritation with the ongoing probe into Russian links with his campaign.
Some Republicans agreed with this concern and privately said that this had given them grave concerns about the independence and integrity of the Justice Department and the FBI’s ongoing probe.
But the choice by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller places the investigation outside the reach of influence from the White House, both because of the way a special counsel is authorized under the law to operate, and because of Mueller’s reputation for integrity and toughness.
Rosenstein did not consult with the White House about the choice or inform them — or Sessions for that matter — until the paperwork making it official had been signed.
Jack Goldsmith, a former top Justice Department lawyer with a storied history of standing up for the rule of law during the Bush administration, was effusive in his praise for the decision.
“I worked with R. Mueller,” he wrote. “He’s a man of extraordinary integrity. He’s not afraid to stand up to [the president] when the law demands. Great choice.”
“I also think it is a great choice for Trump if he is innocent. Mueller is one of few people who can reach that conclusion with credibility,” Goldsmith said.
But some Republicans were not optimistic that Mueller’s appointment would stabilize things enough to let Congress get back to work on a health care bill, and then tax reform later in the year.
Already on Wednesday, there was talk that tax reform would not happen this year, and would slip into next year, which is an election year. The stock market had its worst day since September, with the Dow Jones average dropping 373 points during trading hours.
“At least,” one well-connected Republican operative said, the Mueller appointment could bring “short-term closure.”
But, he added, the “big issue is the growth agenda getting flushed and blowing a historic opportunity.”
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