A warning to those, regardless of their political bent, who are watching special counsel Robert Muller: prepare for the possibility of disappointment. The reality is that as an apolitical defender of the rule of law, Mueller will go no further than the evidence takes him.
We have seen what happens when a large swath of society overconfidently looks to federal investigators as the vehicle for validating their electoral wishes. Remember the Hillary Clinton case?
When FBI officials gave the green light for an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, they knew the investigation would risk angering either entrenched Republicans or Democrats, depending on its outcome. Due to the binary choice of either seeking or declining prosecution of a major political party’s candidate, the feeling among many in the FBI was that, effectively, nobody was getting out alive.
Of course, investigators were never in any physical danger, but the intense political polarization in the country would make it difficult for those blinded by partisanship to stare clearly at the facts of the case and draw a fair and honest conclusion. One party was going to be angry. And angry they were.
When FBI Director James Comey stepped to the microphones in July 2016 to announce the FBI’s recommendation against prosecuting Clinton, the right erupted. How could the FBI not see the obvious? She was clearly guilty! The fix was in!
What followed was a cacophony of ridicule from amateur armchair prosecutors — some of them former FBI employees — responding with disdain and waxing authoritatively about an investigation in which they had no part. It was lost on no one that many of the most vocal critics, such as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had experience as a prosecutor, were also those whose political views were not aligned with Clinton’s.
As Comey’s special assistant, I met individuals around the country who, to my astonishment, had considered Comey their last best hope against electing Clinton president. It was striking to hear them voice such unabashed political opinions regarding the work of one of America’s most important apolitical institutions. They simply could not see past their own intensely-held political beliefs in order to objectively weigh the facts of the case or appreciate the inherent danger of politicizing law enforcement.
To be sure, the pretense was not solely reserved for the GOP. Fast-forward to October 2016, when the surprising discovery of Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop caused the FBI to reopen its investigation. Democrats were apoplectic, with some, such as Lanny Davis, ultimately blaming Comey for Clinton’s loss. To this day, some of my dearest friends on the left still bring up the election loss within the opening minutes of any conversation.
The major problem with our polarized political culture is that it fails to square with the way prosecutors and FBI special agents see the world. Investigators live their lives forward, collecting evidence and going where the facts lead, with no mechanism or fervor to predict the future. Any prosecutorial conclusion is based on an independent review of the information collected in its entirety, not on a desired outcome formulated from the start.
By contrast, in politics, one starts with a desired outcome and then works to achieve that pre-determined goal. Whether it’s electing a particular candidate, passing legislation or defeating an enemy, every effort is calibrated to make the best use of resources, personnel and public opinion in order to help one side win.
The two realities described above collide when someone hoping for a particular political outcome looks to law enforcement as the means to that end. Which brings us to Mueller and his independent investigation.
Thus far, the special counsel has unearthed what appears to be serious violations of federal law, including allegations of money laundering, lying to the FBI, and efforts by foreign nationals to influence the 2016 election. However, no one except Mueller knows where the investigation will lead or whom it will ultimately impact.
Because we are all in the dark about the full details of the ongoing investigation, we have no way to know whether Mueller’s work is nearing completion or if more shoes will drop. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest. Anyone banking on Mueller validating his or her side is being naïve.