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10 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Global politics: Interesting times

With a narrow one-vote majority in the Senate and midterm elections approaching quickly, Republicans can’t afford to lose much ground without paralysing their Capitol Hill agenda for this year
Rayhan Ahmed Topader
Global politics: Interesting times

Certainly every person in the US Justice Department hierarchy has already spent time thinking through what would happen if he or she got the phone call ordering a firing. They have all certainly played out various scenarios, and perhaps even discussed with staffs about where their red lines would be and what action they would take in such a historic moment. Trump could also try two other, more direct paths to forestall the investigation, each would be tremendously controversial in its own way: He could invoke his own Article II powers as president to attempt to fire Mueller directly—which would almost certainly get disputed in court, since the special counsel regulations grant the firing power exclusively to the attorney general or acting attorney general. He could also attempt to pardon all the targets of Mueller’s investigation. Such pardons, though, wouldn’t stop state or local prosecutors from pursuing their own charges—and, indeed, Mueller’s team appears to be leaving bread crumbs in their case work for just such investigations and it wouldn’t stop Mueller from writing a report that could be handed over to the Justice Department to be turned over to Congress for public debate and possible impeachment proceedings. Either move a direct firing or public pardons would likely also ignite a political firestorm in Washington, though there’s little evidence that a red line exists among Republicans on Capitol Hill that they won’t let Trump barge right past.

However, with a narrow one-vote majority in the Senate and midterm elections approaching quickly, Republicans can’t afford to lose much ground without paralyzing their Capitol Hill agenda for this year and risking their congressional majorities in November. Trump’s best path to ridding himself of the meddlesome FBI director and slowly reining in the investigation might come instead from removing Rosenstein or Sessions and appointing a new deputy attorney general or attorney general. Rosenstein is overseeing the case serving as the acting attorney general in the Russia matter because Jeff Sessions himself is a potential target of the investigation, having met secretly with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and then conveniently forgetting about those encounters during his confirmation process. If sessions resign, the next attorney general presuming he or she is also not compromised by the Russia investigation would be able to take control of the investigation back from Rosenstein and either fire Mueller or box in his investigation. Similarly, a replacement for Rosenstein might be more compliant to Trump’s wishes too. It is not widely understood that Mueller’s team has to keep Rosenstein, as acting attorney general, in the loop and ask permission for each additional investigative avenue it wants to pursue. Regardless, though, the removal of Mueller wouldn’t necessarily stop the case in its tracks.

Whoever was responsible for that firing could appoint another special counsel, for one thing; it was, in fact, the work of Archibald Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, which led to some of the most significant court findings in the Watergate scandal. No mightier cosh exists in the uncivil warfare of raw American politics than ordering the President to answer questions that he most ardently wishes to avoid. That is the prospect unnerving Donald Trump and his allies, as Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the inquiry into the Trump team’s dealings with Russia before 2016, intensifies. The President’s fury, unbridled at the best of times, has boiled over in the past few days with a fresh crop of tweets, using capital letters as defensive artillery.“I hereby demand,” begins one (modesty not being in great supply). Another denounces a “Witch Hunt composed of 13 Angry and Heavily Conflicted Democrats” (a reference to the political affiliations of Mueller’s team). For all the grim excitement unleashed lately by Stormy Daniels, the President’s potential porn star nemesis, the tentacles of the Russian saga have the greater chance of corroding a chaotic but tough-to-budge presidency. Dealing badly and dishonestly with inconvenient past liaisons is a shabby character trait. Yet Democrats can hardly overlook the fact that it is one shared by Bill Clinton, who nonetheless kept the support of progressives. Hurricane Stormy looks, for now, more like another sleazy embarrassment than an imminent political fatality.

The tussle over the range of the Russia inquiry and the terms on which the President will be forced to engage with it matter more. They are fast coalescing into the dramatic centrepiece of Trump’s first term. Indeed, the volatile karma of the White House is affected on a daily basis by whether Mueller is suffering setbacks (recent legal challenges to its scope and how far its powers extend into investigating family and political friends of Trump) or nearing his strategic aim of securing the co-operation of an unwilling President. The pace, invective and legal wrestling is reaching fever pitch because Mueller is anxious to finish his inquiry by summer an aim which adds pressure on the delayed Trump visit to Britain, scheduled for July 13. The Trump visit is awkward optics for Theresa May but a defensible invitation. It seeks to bind an unreliable partner into solid Nato commitments and nudge along the never-ready US-UK post-Brexit trade deal. And while there is never an easy time for a drop-by from the most divisive figure in global politics, the PM and her officials are devoutly hoping that the Trump ushered into Number 10 is in as calm a mood as the Great Noise-maker can be. As someone close to the visit-planning shudders, they hope for “a genial Shrek” but fear the imminent timing of the Mueller report might end up with the UK hosting “the full ogre”.

There’s not enough chamomile tea in the world for that. Mueller’s investigation is a legitimate one, given the evidence of intended Kremlin manipulation and unwisdom of the pre-election Trump squad and business allies in dealings with Russian designates. But it does have weaknesses, which need to be mitigated as far as possible to avoid deepening the corrosive partisanship of the Trump era. One, as Trump’s attorney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, points out, is that its potential scope is dizzyingly wide, which leads to a perception among Trump supporters that it is a “come and get him” opportunity for political foes. This unwieldy breadth follows from the precedent, established in the Kenneth Starr investigation into Bill Clinton’s personal conduct and ramifications in the late Nineties. But Mueller’s team is also heavily comprised of Democrats or Democratic donors (Mueller, however, is a registered Republican). He must, then, take extra care to avoid the impression that his inquiry is timed to affect November mid-term campaigning which in effect begins straight after the summer break."The PM will hope the Trump ushered into Number 10 is in as calm a mood as the Great Noise-maker can be" Trump has little practical choice but to answer questions about his campaign staff’s links to Russia — or face the humiliation of a subpoena, which would be risky to contest. This week he is bargaining over how much disclosure will be made of the source of FBI information from inside the election campaign.

But when the delaying tactics run out, the President faces an awkward precedent reaching back to the internecine strife of Hamilton, the sequel. In 1807, a chief justice sought to subpoena Thomas Jefferson in the trial of Aaron Burr for treason. Jefferson resisted on the Mark Zuckerberg-ish grounds that he was “too busy to travel from Washington to Richmond”. Notwithstanding Trumpian chutzpah, a diary-related get-out is not likely to pass muster in 2018 (Jefferson never did appear, but the case produced a precedent that the presidency was subject to subpoena). Several subsequent incumbents have reluctantly provided testimony in legal cases or inquiries. Dragging out the inevitable on that score did not help Clinton, who ended up submitting to a grilling on sexual harassment in the Paula Jones civil suit and a lengthier encounter with Starr.Today, the Trump presidency prides itself on exceptionalism but it cannot simply defy the grinding wheels of inquiries. The best strategy for the Trump legal team is either to delay the report with legal trip wires that would prevent its conclusions being published until after November. That just extends the agony. More likely, as Giuliani a pragmatist, for all his loyalty to Trump  suggested at the weekend, it is a hard bargain over the scope of testimony that the President is asked to deliver, short of the humiliation of subpoena and even messier consequences. Already, charges against his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, related to his business dealings with Ukraine, make it likely that former allies will plea-bargain to decrease exposure to jail sentences.

A quarter century ago, when Mueller first ended up in Washington as the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division during the George H.W. Bush administration, his aide David Margolis a lifelong Justice Department official who came to be seen as Main Justice’s conscience until his death in 2016 after more than 50 years of service cautioned Mueller to pick and choose his battles. If he didn’t, Margolis warned, Mueller would get chewed up by the partisan and bureaucratic bickering of the capitol. Mueller, thinking back to those days in the jungles of Vietnam, fixed Margolis with an icy stare that would become all too familiar to a generation of prosecutors and FBI agents. He replied, “I don’t bruise easily.” In the 25 years since, including 12 years atop the FBI, Mueller has given no indication that he’s changed. And even today as special counsel, he’s still likely getting more sleep than he did in Vietnam.

The writer is a regular contributor to The Independent



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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