Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, is a Republican. This simple biographical fact often gets lost amid rambling Twitter rants from Donald Trump, like one the president delivered Wednesday about the "Witch Hunt" led by Mueller and "17 Angry Democrats." Yes, just about all of the people caught up in the sprawling probe that has already made convicted felons out of several Trump cohorts have been Republicans or conservatives. But Mueller, who was appointed an assistant US attorney by George H.W. Bush in 1990 and FBI director by George W. Bush in 2001, has no beef with the GOP. That was probably one of the reasons Rod Rosenstein, the (Republican) deputy attorney general who appointed him last spring, chose Mueller. His credentials seemed unimpeachable.
Mueller's stature obviously hasn't stopped Trump from trying to destroy him—that's how Trump works, smearing and besmirching every halfway decent human being he comes into contact with, dragging them down to his sorry level. But the special counsel recently broke new ground by referring a batch of cases exploring whether Americans of both parties failed to register as agents of foreign governments to federal prosecutors in New York. As CNN reported this week:
Since the spring, Mueller has referred matters to SDNY involving longtime Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and his work for his former firm, the Podesta Group, and former Minnesota Republican Rep. Vin Weber and his work for Mercury Public Affairs, the sources said.
One source said that former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, a former partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, is also part of the inquiry.
None of these people have been formally accused of wrongdoing or charged with any crimes, but this still seems like a signature moment in Mueller's probe. No one can accuse him of being an anti-Trump partisan here—after all, Podesta's brother, John, was chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign, not to mention the guy who fell for a Russian phishing attempt that may have helped Trump win the White House. And Craig sits at the nexus of the Democratic establishment, having worked for the Clinton White House and for Barack Obama after that.
But this is also the latest sign that the best-case scenario for Mueller's probe, from a good-government perspective, is not about impeaching Trump or flushing out his weirdly-tight-with-Moscow friends. Instead, it's shining a light on the filth of influence in Washington—the way both parties have, as David Dayen explained for VICE earlier this year, become enthralled by big money and high-powered consultants and "strategic affairs" lawyers. This is what Trump called the "swamp" before he began his presidency by refusing to clean it up. In a twist, Mueller isn't just narrowly focused on the Russians and any wrongdoing from Trump's team—he's exposing the bipartisan favor-trading that makes a demagogue like Trump possible, and maybe even laying the groundwork for actual changes.
"The Trump presidency combined with the Mueller probe is setting the stage for a major reform effort that will begin in 2019," said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group. While the attorney and longtime activist might have a personal interest in that outcome, one thing he told me was indisputable: "Major reforms come from scandals. History tells us that. We have a systematically corrupt system and the public knows."
Obviously, Trump hasn't drained any swamps—he's created new ones. But Mueller is putting a handful of usually invisible power players under the federal law enforcement microscope, and that could pay long-term dividends.
"It's interesting that we have a Democrat in Podesta, a Republican in Weber, a lawyer and Democrat in Craig—and all of them are uber-insiders, they've been in DC for decades, and have filled many different roles, and have such deep contacts and relationships to draw upon should they need them," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a DC good-government group, told me.
Krumholz wasn't quite as bullish as Wertheimer about the Mueller investigation spawning a wave of major government reform in Washington. But she did feel that if nothing else, all this scrutiny of people unused to it was having a deterrent effect, however short-lived.
"It is important if they have broken the rules—if not the laws—for them to be held accountable and be held up as examples," she told me.
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