Washington – If you are having a hard time keeping track of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, you are not alone.
When President Trump got rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month by forcing his resignation, it left him open to pick Matthew Whitaker (who was previously Sessions’ chief of staff) as acting attorney general.
Whitaker was chosen by Trump primarily because he has criticized Mueller’s investigation and thinks it has gone on long enough. That was music to the president’s ears.
Sessions had no role in the investigation, because he recused himself from any oversight role in Mueller’s probe at his Senate confirmation hearing, admitting he had lied about talking to the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
That left Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in charge of the investigation, and he appointed Mueller in May 2017, who then hit the ground running.
Since then, Mueller’s team of investigators has charged four Americans who were part of Trump’s campaign or his administration with various offenses, plus 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian intelligence officers and three Russian companies, among others.
Throughout the investigation, convictions, guilty pleas and other court actions, Trump continued to insist – and still insists – that Mueller and his team were conducting “a witch hunt,” and that the whole story about Russia’s cyberwar interference in the 2016 election was “fake news.”
Since Trump appointed Whitaker as acting attorney general, there has been a growing number of suspicions, rumors and assorted reports that he would call an end to Mueller’s remaining investigation.
The president appeared to be promoting that outcome when he said on “Fox News Sunday” that he would not interfere if Whitaker were to bring a halt to Mueller’s investigation. “Look, it’s going to be up to him (Whitaker). I would not get involved.”
He said that he didn’t know about Whitaker’s criticisms of Mueller’s investigation before he appointed him. So much for thorough vetting of his administration’s officials.
Trump also appeared to shut the door on sitting down with Mueller’s team to answer their questions.
“I think we’ve wasted enough time on this witch hunt, and the answer is probably: We’re finished,” Trump said, adding that he had given “very complete answers to a lot of (their) questions.”
But that’s not the message Mueller’s team laid out in a court filing on Monday, explaining that Whitaker will have no authority over the investigation.
That was the response from the special counsel “to an inquiry from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a case brought by Andrew Miller, an associate of Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to President Trump,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
After hearing oral arguments earlier this month, a three-judge panel is facing separate court challenges about the validity of Whitaker’s role in the investigation.
“The designation has no effect on the case,” Mueller’s team said of Whitaker’s new position, according to the Post. “The validity of the special counsel’s ‘appointment’ cannot be retroactively affected by a change in the official who is serving as the acting attorney general.”
If this sounds like Trump is operating on shaky legal grounds in his attempt to bring Mueller’s work to an end, read this:
“In recent rulings, two district court judges in Washington – one nominated by a Democrat, the other by Trump – have upheld the constitutionality of Mueller’s appointment,” the Post reported.
A growing number of other legal officials also question Whitaker’s authority to run the Justice Department or to restrict the parameters of the special counsel’s investigation.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said in a court filing last week that until Whitaker is confirmed by the Senate, he does not have the legal authority to run the Justice Department.
So far, special counsel Mueller has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Kremlin was waging a massive, divisive cyberwar campaign on our elections, with the help of American political operatives, to poison our free democratic process.
Now we are waiting for Mueller to name names – to show how far up the ladder this politically criminal plot went during the 2016 presidential election.