Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mueller is a distraction

The conventional wisdom is that the appointment of Robert Mueller III as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign's connection to Russia is a good thing. It puts the investigation into the hands of a widely respected former FBI director who is seen as being above partisanship. Plus, a lot of us are just exhausted from the avalanche of disturbing news out of this administration.

David Frum, though, sees more clearly.

In his 14 May 2017 Atlantic piece he argued that "Of all the types of independent investigation that have been suggested, a special prosecutor is the most likely to disappear down rabbit holes—the least likely [to] answer the questions that needed to be answered." Why? Because a special prosecutor is charged to investigate only criminal conduct. Anything that isn't a crime isn't of interest, or at least cannot be reported to the public. The flip side is that criminal action must consume all the special prosecutor's attention, "no matter how secondary or tertiary the crime might seem in the larger scheme of things", to quote Frum again. In short, a special prosecutor wears a set of glasses conferring a particular myopia. What we need, however, is context — the big picture — not a narrow dive down one avenue of potential trouble (i.e., criminal misconduct).

Frum argued for an investigative strategy that allows us to answer a simple question:

While it remains uncertain whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, it’s a fact accepted by everyone except Trump himself that Russia did intervene on his behalf. Why?

This is an intelligence question with policy implications, not a prosecutorial question with legal implications.

Though simple, the question could require a wide-ranging investigation to elicit a comprehensive answer, and Frum contends that only a less narrowly-tailored investigative body can do the job:
A select committee of Congress or an independent commission of nonpartisan experts established by Congress can ask the broad question: What happened? A select committee or an independent commission can organize its inquiry according to priority, leaving the secondary and tertiary issues to the historians. A select committee or an independent commission is not barred from looking at events in earlier years statutes of limitations. A select committee or an independent commission seeks truth.
And truth is what we need above all: we're choking on the administration's lies and obfuscations.

So how did Frum react to Mueller's appointment? Read his 18 May 2017 piece.

Republicans in Congress have gained a new excuse to revert to their prior enabling of Trump’s misconduct: A special counsel has been appointed!

Instead of defiantly lying, the White House staff can now refuse to answer questions outright: A special counsel has been appointed!

Fundamental questions of national security and public integrity will go unexplored as the special counsel focuses on narrow legal matters. The public debate will be starved of new information as the special counsel proceeds in legally required secrecy.

What we don't know — what we entrust Mueller to find out for us — will take on primary importance for many, while "what happened in plain sight" will "dwindle into secondary importance". Trump's firing of James Comey, his "cheering rather than condemning a Russian attack on American democracy" — these will now be shrugged off by those who wish to shrug them off, with the excuse that they were "not criminal, merely anti-democratic and disloyal".

Perhaps most damningly:

People in Trump’s orbit now face legal fees and legal jeopardy. For a long time however, the president himself will enjoy the shield of Robert Mueller’s professional discretion.

Like me, Frum isn't hung up on the highly legalistic question of "did Trump or his people commit crimes?" Rather, Frum boils down his concern to a single, burning question:

“Is the president a risk to national security?”
Here's what we need, then:
The most urgent task ahead is a broader counter-espionage inquiry conducted not to mete out punishments, but to discover and publicize the truth, however disturbing.

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