President Donald Trump was fuming on Twitter this morning about Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate possible ties between his campaign and Russian hackers in the lead-up to November's election. He called the investigation "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history" and said "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!" (What those alleged "illegal acts" were, he didn't say.)
Really, Mr. Rosenstein just did him a huge favor. An investigation by a truly independent special counsel is the only chance Mr. Trump has to salvage his presidency.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Trump is correct and there is nothing to the suspicions that members of his campaign collaborated with the Russians. Let's imagine that his reported urging of FBI director James Comey that he drop an inquiry into then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's ties with Russia (and, as it turned out, Turkey) and his subsequent firing of Mr. Comey over the "Russia thing" were examples of childish petulance and naivete rather than efforts to obstruct justice. Let's even accept that the shifting explanations for each new revelation represent genuine confusion in a new administration and not clumsy collusion.
There was simply no way that the public was going to accept the results of the haphazard congressional investigations or one overseen by Mr. Trump's appointees at the Justice Department as being truly objective, thorough and unbiased. The history of partisanship in recent congressional investigations is simply too great — up to and including Rep. Devin Nunes' cartoonish rush to the White House to share revelations he had gotten the day before on a visit to the White House — and the president's willingness to meddle is too apparent.
In former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, Mr. Rosenstein has selected someone with the stature and experience to conduct a thorough, credible investigation. Mr. Rosenstein did not go as far as he could have in granting Mr. Mueller autonomy — U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was subject to less supervision from the Department of Justice when he was appointed special counsel to investigate the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. But Mr. Mueller will not be subject to day-to-day oversight by Mr. Rosenstein or anyone else at justice. Mr. Rosenstein may request that Mr. Mueller "provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step, and may after review conclude that the action is so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued," but if he attempts to override the special counsel, he must first notify Congress. Mr. Mueller cannot be fired by the president but only by Mr. Rosenstein, and then only for cause, which must be explained in writing.
All that doesn't provide Mr. Mueller with quite the unfettered license that the independent counsels did in the Iran-Contra and Whitewater investigations — those were authorized under a post-Watergate law that Congress allowed to expire — but Mr. Rosenstein's letter announcing the appointment should provide him with the authority he needs to investigate both any illegal conduct during the campaign and any subsequent attempts to obstruct justice.
It is breathtaking that we have reached this point just four months into a new administration, but the near daily revelations of shocking developments — whether from information leaked to reporters or straight from the president's Twitter feed — have crippled Mr. Trump's presidency. If Mr. Trump uses the special counsel investigation as an opportunity to purge the destructive and chaotic influences in the West Wing, it could represent a chance for his administration to right itself. He may not get many others.