Our Editorial: Independent oversight should quell fears

The Detroit News

Appointing an independent special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election was the only way to quiet the escalating chaos within the Trump White House.

Until this week, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who took over direction of the probe after his boss Jeff Sessions recused himself, had resisted calls to bring in an outside investigator. He’d insisted his staff and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe had the independence and resources to get to the bottom of the allegations.

But serial events and revelations that raised the possibility the administration may have tried to sidetrack the probe made the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller III necessary to restore public confidence that the suspicions of collusion between Russian and the Trump presidential campaign were being thoroughly and fairly examined.

The allegations have become so caught up in the bitter, partisan battles raging in Washington that Americans have no way of knowing where the truth lies.

Much of the blame, but certainly not all of it, rests with President Trump. His comments on Twitter and in public often contradict the statements coming from other administration officials who were assigned the unenviable task of refuting charges of collusion and obstruction, nearly all of them raised by anonymous sources in press accounts.

A tsunami of leaks has kept the administration on the defense for weeks and made it impossible for other vital priorities, such as health care and tax reform, to gain traction.

The ill-timed firing of FBI Director James Comey, and reports — again from anonymous sources — that Comey has written a memo stating that Trump asked him to back off the Russia probe, was the final straw. Mueller now must sort through all this political noise and determine, what, if anything, rises to a prosecutable offense.

In naming him to the job, Rosenstein stressed that his decision did not stem from a “finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted.”

Job One for the special counsel is to figure out whether Russia actually interfered in the election, a charge the Russians deny, and if so, how they did it. Any collusion between Trump campaign officials and the forces of Russia’s Vladimir Putin must be aggressively pursued, and if evidence is found, aggressively prosecuted.

Mueller must also find and bring to account those who have leaked highly confidential information, including the names of individuals who were either intentionally or inadvertently caught up in the investigation. Leaking such information is a felony, and worse, has the potential to destroy the lives of people who might never be charged with a crime.

Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser whose past ties to the Russians is at the center of the probe, may not be a sympathetic figure. But he should never have been outed by Justice Department leakers while the investigation was ongoing.

Special counsels have a mixed history. They tend to spend a tremendous amount of money on drawn out investigations that most often have netted small fish. Think Col. Oliver North in Iran Contra and Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame affair.

That’s a major reason Congress allowed the independent counsel authorizing legislation to lapse in 1999. Mueller was appointed under another statute that had been used only once before to investigate allegations of government wrongdoing in the deadly raid of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.

Still, Mueller is an inspired pick for this job. Appointed to head the FBI shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

He should be given the resources to do his job thoroughly and quickly — and without interference or political distractions. To that end, the separate probes under way in House and Senate committees should be suspended while Mueller tries to bring an objective eye to this essential investigation.