With each new day, calls on Capitol Hill for the appointment of an independent, impartial special prosecutor into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election—and any involvement that associates of Donald Trump may or may not have had in that interference—grow louder. Congressional Democrats have made it one of their top priorities to beat the drum on a special prosecutor every single day for the last several weeks, bringing it up at every Justice Department confirmation hearing, every leadership news conference, and every single day on the Senate floor. The Department of Justice is compromised, they argue, and the only way to get to the bottom of what really happened is by allowing a lawyer outside the department’s chain-of-command to do his or her work with full authority.
To date, the Trump administration has not only ignored those calls, but has forcefully pushed back against them. President Trump reportedly tore into his senior staff at the White House, arguing that attorney general Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from any investigation into Russia was a political embarrassment for his administration and a direct contradiction to statements he made hours before that Sessions needn’t succumb to the pressure from Democrats. To Trump and his inner circle, appointing a special prosecutor would be tantamount to political surrender.
But there are several reasons why a special prosecutor may in fact hold political dividends for Trump and for the country as a whole. Rather than resisting every step of the way, the next deputy attorney general should use his power to tap a prosecutor outside of the department with full investigative power to conduct the Russia inquiry wherever the facts happen to lead.
Dan Balz of the Washington Post had it right when he wrote that “Russia has become the slow burn of president Trump’s administration.” With each and every drip of new information coming out of the bureaucracy, and with leaks about the ongoing investigation within the executive branch continuing to be fed to news outlets across the country, the Russia story has legs that the Trump administration (and perhaps Donald Trump himself) didn’t think were there. The Trump administration, Balz observes, “cannot get beyond it because they have not been as forthcoming as they could be about what they did. They cannot get beyond it because they don’t know what they don’t know.” Regardless of how insignificant the leaks are, they dominate the news cycle and force Trump’s White House staff to respond on-the-fly with very little preparation.
It’s tough to see how this dynamic will change until the Justice Department finally admits that a special prosecutor and an independent look at Russia’s cyberattacks is warranted. By appointing a career prosecutor with impeccable credentials to lead the inquiry, the administration could calm the news cycle and refer any and all questions to the office of the prosecutor performing the investigation. And then they can get to the business of fixing the country’s problems, instead of devoting their time and attention to what the president knew and when he knew it.
Sure, it’s a given that congressional Democrats are clamoring for a special prosecutor (and even the appointment of a bipartisan, outside commission to determine what exactly the Russians were up to. It’s a political winner for them at a time when Democrats have very little legislative power in Washington, so Senate minority leader Charles Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi will continue to use it as a political cudgel.
But what Democrats want isn’t the issue. The American people are increasingly coming to the conclusion that Justice Department officials shouldn’t be the final authority on the Russia matter. According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 55% of Americans surveyed “say they are at least somewhat concerned by reports” that some Trump associates may have had contact with Russian officials during last year’s presidential election. Sixty-three percent of Americans in the same poll think a special prosecutor is warranted. In other words, the majority of the country (at in this one survey) want the Justice Department to appoint someone whose objectivity isn’t tainted—or at least has the appearance of being untainted. As a nation, the United States needs to get beyond the doubt many of its citizens are feeling.
Currently, president Trump is putting the GOP in a bind. Republican lawmakers are being asked by reporters to comment in every press conference and every town hall at home whether they support an independent investigation outside of the Justice Department, and if not, why not. All five Sunday talk shows one recent weekend were dominated by the topic, and people like Tom Cotton, Susan Collins, and Marco Rubio were put in the awkward position of either making an excuse as to why a special prosecutor isn’t necessary at this time or why they are breaking with the administration on the need for one. Russia is turning into a disaster for the Republican Party politically, and as Robert Kagan wrote on Mar. 6, continued resistance to a special prosecutor has chipped away at the GOP’s credibility as a party.
Donald Trump was unique from other presidential candidates in modern history for repeatedly clashing with his party’s establishment during the campaign—in fact, he relished attacking career politicians who he labeled as grossly ineffective and incompetent. It was likely one of the factors contributing to his appeal to swing voters and the white, working class Midwest. But Donald Trump is not only president of the United States, but the Republican Party’s leader. Like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush before him, Trump needs to worry about his party’s national standing. At the present time, he’s not doing a good job on that front.
No one can say whether the appointment of a special prosecutor will unearth anything substantial. The Justice Department’s own investigation is still in its early stages—a lot of information and intelligence has yet to be examined by the Congressional intelligence committees, and there is certainly no guarantee that an independent investigation will go into areas that president Trump may not want it to go. The appointment of a special prosecutor will generate days of endless headlines from the press that will suggest that the Russia probe is so serious that criminality may be involved.
But Trump needs to be honest with himself: the endless cycle of Russia stories is hurting his credibility, and has the potential to hurt his party’s chances in the 2018 midterm elections. Why not embrace what everyone, most importantly the American people, want?