The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel means the road lies open to prosecutions that will define the future of the Trump administration – and perhaps its survival
The first months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been marked by extraordinary chaos and disruption. The administration has begun to come apart at the seams, above all because of the president’s own behaviour and incompetence. Every day brings a new diversion. But the appointment by the US justice department of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is a clarifying act. For the administration it is a watershed moment. It may also, perhaps, prove to be a Watergate one.
Special prosecutors are lesser but still powerful versions of judge-appointed independent counsels such as Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation itself and Kenneth Starr in the Bill Clinton era. Congress found them just too independent and the law authorising them lapsed in 1999. Robert Mueller is in the job thanks to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who took on the issue after his ideologue boss Jeff Sessions rightly recused himself, and has some of the appearance of a political appointment. But it has been welcomed by senior Democrats and Republicans alike. That the appointment was made in the face of White House insistence that it was entirely unnecessary, and in the midst of yet another “worst week so far” for the president, reflects well on Mr Rosenstein and the justice department. The decision is a sign that constitutional principles and ethical norms survive within the federal government in spite of Mr Trump’s utter disregard for them in so many ways. It will reshape politics on Capitol Hill too.