Politics and the Mueller probe

Had Rod Rosenstein not chosen a career in law enforcement, he could have played a serviceable TV cop on “Dragnet.” Like the fictional Joe Friday, the deputy attorney general is unflappable, and he demonstrated that Wednesday when he told members of the House Judiciary Committee plainly and unwaveringly that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is conducting a fair and impartial investigation into Russian meddling in the last election.

“The independence and integrity of the investigation is not going to be affected by anything that anybody says,” the former U.S. attorney for Maryland instructed committee members.

Such clarity is a welcome relief after days of drumbeating by Republicans and their allies in the conservative media that President Donald Trump can’t possibly get a fair shake from Mr. Mueller and his team because — horrors — some associated with the investigation have expressed political views that are not worshipful of the sitting president. Indeed, these “scandalous” leaks that have come out so far — including a counterintelligence agent’s assessment that Mr. Trump is “loathsome” and an “idiot” (observations made prior to Mr. Mueller’s appointment, incidentally) — sound awfully familiar to a majority of Americans.

Lest anyone forget, Mr. Trump is not an especially popular figure in this country, with record low job approval numbers. His own secretary of state reportedly made an equally unflattering observation of the president’s mental capacity, and he still has his job in the cabinet.

One of the personality traits that made Mr. Rosenstein, a George W. Bush appointee, such a popular U.S. attorney here in Baltimore was his evenhanded nature. He prosecuted wrongdoing by Republicans and Democrats alike, and because Maryland is a blue state, when it came time to prosecute elected officials it was mostly Democrats. Some of the targets may believe him unfair, but most Marylanders remember him as a straight arrow. That’s why he had such productive relationships in the fight against violent criminals and drug gangs across a variety of administrations in City Hall and the State House.

Now Mr. Rosenstein is Mr. Mueller’s boss. And Mr. Mueller, let’s not forget, is a Republican and another Bush appointee who ran the FBI for a dozen years, the longest tenure by anyone not named J. Edgar Hoover. That doesn’t sound like a Democratic partisan.

Then there’s James Comey Jr., Mr. Mueller’s successor at the FBI who was fired by Mr. Trump in the wake of the Russia investigation. Mr. Comey’s ill-advised disclosure of a further investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails two weeks prior to the election may have done more to get Mr. Trump elected than any Russian did. Yet Mr. Mueller’s cordial relationship with Mr. Comey disqualifies him? That’s not a stretch, that’s a fantasy.

We agree with some of the GOP House critics in one regard. Mr. Mueller’s investigation can’t simply be fair and impartial, it has to appear that way as well. So it’s entirely appropriate for the Justice Department to remove individuals like Peter Strzok from the Mueller team after his texts critical of Mr. Trump made to an FBI lawyer became public. Yet to throw out the entire investigation (or fire Mr. Mueller or hire yet another investigator to investigate Mr. Mueller) because of them is beyond absurd. What’s next, a political litmus test for every FBI agent depending on which party is in control of the White House and Congress?

Federal employees are human. They are bound to express their opinions on a wide variety of matters from time to time. Of course, you don’t want prosecutors driven by a political agenda, but what evidence is there of that? It’s one thing to hold a political opinion, it’s quite another to act on it. To date, the Mueller investigation has taken no action that suggests it’s tainted. None. As Mr. Rosenstein testified, this is a process that is driven by the facts. Charges made against Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Flynn are backed up by evidence. There simply isn’t any legitimate dispute about that.

What’s far more distressing is the “witch hunt” currently being waged by certain members of Congress who seek to protect the administration from the special prosecutor. They are itching to find any excuse to derail or neuter the investigation in the usual act of self-serving political tribalism. This is harmful to the leader of our party? We have to be at war against it! That’s the real deep-state — political insiders and their phoney-baloney, trumped-up outrage over ho-hum criticisms of a president no worse than the ones they probably make themselves when the TV cameras aren’t rolling.

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