Though the threat is apparent, experts said the Trump administration also saw some immediate benefits as it avoids an independent investigation
Some threats to executive power may come dressed in sheep’s clothing, the late supreme court justice Antonin Scalia once wrote, but when it comes to the issue of independent counsels, “this wolf comes as a wolf”.
The threat to Donald Trump was apparent as he started his morning Thursday by complaining bitterly on Twitter about the “witch hunt” he faces in the form of the investigation of his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, and the injustice of having special counsel appointed to oversee it.
But the degree that Trump’s agenda is disrupted by the special counsel’s work may depend largely on the discipline of the president himself.
The news that Trump’s deputy attorney general had handed over supervision of the Russia investigation to Robert Mueller, a well-respected former director of the FBI, came suddenly on Wednesday night. The president was not informed until after the order appointing the special counsel had already been signed.
“The first question they’re all going to be asking themselves at the White House today is, ‘Do I need to lawyer up?’” said Philip Shenon, a former New York Times Washington correspondent who covered the first year of a special investigation of the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan years.
“If you were in a room with Mike Flynn or Paul Manafort during the course of the campaign and the question of Russia ever came up, you can expect to be subpoenaed for your records of those meetings. You can expect to give testimony.”
But experts said the Trump administration also saw some immediate benefits from the decision as the announcement satisfied the growing clamour among congressional Democrats for a special counsel to be appointed.
“The whole issue had really escalated to the point that something had to give,” said Ken Gormley, the author of books about Clinton’s independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was fired by Richard Nixon.
The alternative to a special counsel would be an independent investigation run by Congress, which would be inherently political. With a special counsel, “you have career professionals handling this who are apolitical”, Gormley said.
Mueller, with his sterling bipartisan credentials, is not exactly a reassuring choice from the White House’s perspective, though he has been greeted with almost universal acclaim from outside observers.
FBI agents were furious at Trump’s abrupt public firing of their director James Comey, which was seen as a dishonorable and humiliating move by many former FBI agents.
“That’s part of the irony of what’s happening: Trump fired Comey, and now he’s got one of Comey’s best friends leading the investigation,” Shenon said.
“There are a lot of people at the FBI today who think justice has been served: by ousting Comey, Trump has gotten a much bigger prosecutor,” he said.
But Mueller’s reputation for integrity also means that his judgement will be respected if he ultimately finds no evidence of wrongdoing among Trump’s associates.
Mueller also has one quality that the president, who has railed against leaks from inside his administration, will be sure to appreciate: the former FBI director is expected to keep his mouth shut.
“Once an investigation like this gets rolling, if it’s done by a professional like Mueller, you won’t hear a peep from him,” Gormley said. “This is not someone who is going to be on the radio and television every day talking about what he’s doing. It’s more likely we’ll hear nothing from him or his team for a long time.”
“The silence that will probably come out of Mueller shop will probably be a relief,” Shenon said.
Trump’s outrage at the investigation that has overshadowed his first days in the White House is typical, Gormley said. “Pretty much every president who has been subject to a special prosecutor has viewed it as a witch hunt.”
Bill Clinton had a similar reaction on Whitewater: “Before he had even turned the keys and opened the door to the White House, there were political foes out to get him.”
The fear for presidents, he said, is that “if you get the wrong special prosecutor”, you could be faced with an implacable opponent who just wants to undermine you, “rather than conduct a balance investigation”.
But Mueller’s appointment was much more by-the-book than the choice to replace Clinton’s previous Whitewater special counsel with Ken Starr, a conservative Republican, which was greeted with outrage from Democrats from the beginning.
With Mueller, “It’s really hard to cry foul on this one. It looks anything but political. It looks like it’s being done correctly,” Gormley said.
No president likes to find themselves under the criminal scrutiny of a special counsel, Gormley said. But presidents have had dramatically different levels of skill in dealing with the challenge.
“Clinton got pretty good at just compartmentalizing and just staying focused,” Gormley said. Clinton delivered one of the most brilliant State of the Union addresses in presidential history to the members of Congress who were engaged in impeachment proceedings against him, he said.
Clinton “was very good at recognizing that his job as president was to stay focused on his work. [The investigation] got under his skin and distracted him, but he was very disciplined at being able to wall it off and keep working. Richard Nixon was not successful with doing that, and was consumed by Watergate. It ate him alive at the end.”
How distracting the investigation would be would depend on the discipline of Trump himself, Gormley said.
How he will react “will become evident in the next month or so – this is going to begin to play out. He has to either turn back to his work and really consistently focus on that – or be drawn in”.
The worst case scenario for a special counsel’s work is that it totally destabilizes an administration.
Iran-Contra, the Reagan-era’s sprawling investigation that drew in multiple top officials, was “just nightmarish”, Shenon said.
“It was a daily headache for the administration. Every day there would be questions about the latest subpoenas or testimony or evidence demanded. Everyone in the Reagan White House had to lawyer up and had their personal papers subpoenaed.”
“A lot of people in the White House and elsewhere had to spend personally tens of thousands of dollars” to hire lawyers for an investigation that stretched on for years.
Pointing to the example of Iran-Contra, John Yoo, a former Bush administration Justice official and author of the Torture Memos, advised Trump in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday to simply fire most of his current staff.
“President Trump should emulate Reagan. He should fire his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and all the others who brought the chaos of the presidential campaign into the White House. He can replace them with more experienced government hands, much as he replaced Mr Flynn with HR McMaster,” Yoo wrote.
Trump staff - and Capitol Hill Republicans may hope that there is a chance to shift focus to their legislative agenda as the investigation goes quiet.
However, the hope of a short-term gain is no guarantee of escaping longer term pain from an investigation which now seems certain to cast a shadow over the Trump White House for years to come.
When special counsel investigated the leaking of CIA official Valerie Plame’s name to reporters during the George W Bush administration, almost two years passed before charges of perjury and obstruction were brought against Scooter Libby, vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
How long the Russia investigation will last is unclear. “Probably to the very end of the Trump administration,” Shenon said.
“I think it’s very safe to say this is going to go on for years.”