To many Americans, the announcement on Sunday that special counsel Robert Mueller had cleared President Donald Trump on charges of colluding with Russians in the 2016 presidential campaign and said there was not enough evidence to move against him on obstruction of justice charges was a welcome repudiation for a president they see as having been unfairly under fire throughout his term.
For others, there was relief the president wasn’t compromised by Russians even if he still was not their preferred pick.
But according to the New York Times, “the development represents a dangerous degradation of the rule of law, handing a president almost complete leeway to thwart any effort by federal law enforcement authorities to scrutinize his actions almost as if he were a king.”
Reporter Peter Baker prefaced that sentence with “According to Mr. Trump’s critics,” but it is clear from the headline – “Mueller’s Investigation Erases a Line Drawn After Watergate” – and the rest of the story that this is the view of the Times and its reporter as well.
“After Watergate, it was unthinkable that a president would fire an FBI director who was investigating him or his associates,” Baker wrote. “Or force out an attorney general for failing to protect him from an investigation. Or dangle pardons before potential witnesses before him.
“But the end of the inquiry” by Mueller “made clear that President Trump had successfully thrown out the unwritten rules that had bound other chief executives in the 45 years since President Richard M. Nixon resigned under fire, effectively expanding presidential power in a dramatic way.”
Trump fired Comey for a variety of reasons, chief among them a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommending the dismissal. The Mueller investigation has validated Trump’s view that Comey and others were concocting reasons to remove him from office.
Trump had not “dangled pardons” to any defendants. He answered a question about pardoning Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was convicted of tax crimes unrelated to Trump or the campaign, by saying a pardon “was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table.”
His problems with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions related to inaction on a number of matters and Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the special counsel.
Mueller was said to have asked numerous witnesses over the course of his two-year investigation whether Trump talked behind closed doors of obstructing his investigation or others and apparently came away with no convincing case the president ever did. He appears to have said the evidence of obstruction of justice, such as it exists, amounts to public statements the president made through Twitter or on television, and voters can judge for themselves.
To Baker, this meant it is a new day when it comes to presidents protecting themselves from investigations.
His “decision not to take a position on whether Mr. Trump’s many norm-shattering interventions in the law enforcement system constituted obstruction of justice means that future occupants of the White House will feel entitled to take similar actions,” Baker wrote. “More than perhaps any other outcome of the Mueller investigation, this may become its most enduring legacy.”
Baker then traced the history of the independent counsel law and the means by which Mueller was appointed a special counsel.
“In the absence of an independent counsel law, Mr. Mueller was appointed as a special prosecutor who still answered to the Justice Department, meaning he had less latitude, could not indict the president even if he thought it merited and could be fired by the president he was investigating, as Mr. Trump threatened to do repeatedly,” Baker wrote.
Trump criticized the special counsel and charged that he had conflicts of interest that precluded him being fair. But there is not one verified on-the-record account of Trump threatening to actually fire Mueller.