President Donald Trump has sent some pretty strong signals that his next target is special counsel Robert Mueller. During his recent New York Timesinterview, the President suggested that there are conflict-of-interest problems in Mueller's office. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Thursday evening that Trump's revamped legal team is exploring ways to undercut Mueller by pursuing these allegations of conflicts of interest and exploring how the President could use his pardoning powers.
Following these reports, the evening news shows instantly lit up with warnings that firing Mueller would throw the country into the kind of constitutional crisis that we have not seen since Richard Nixon's presidency. Just as quickly, Trump's supporters -- and some commentators who are not particularly sympathetic to the administration -- dismissed these warnings.
But perhaps the most telling parallel suggested by The New York Times was between the Trump team's efforts against Mueller and the steps Bill Clinton's White House took in the 1990s against independent counsel Ken Starr. Another comparison is with Lawrence Walsh, who came under fire from President Ronald Reagan's supporters during his investigation of Iran-Contra scandal.
But this comparison misses something pretty fundamental. Both Starr and Walsh were working under the independent counsel law that Congress passed in 1978 as part of the Ethics in Government Act. The law protected both men from an aggressive president, and both could count on the fact that their team would not be stifled by an administration intent on obstructing justice. Clinton and Reagan could criticize and castigate the prosecutors all they wanted, but it would be nearly impossible to have them fired. Their work could go on unimpeded.
Under the independent counsel law, the attorney general was required to recommend a special prosecutor when they were given charges of misconduct by the executive branch. (The only way to say no was for the charges to be "so unsubstantiated" that there was no reason to move forward.) A three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was then responsible for appointing the prosecutor who would not have to work under any deadlines or budget limits. ...