Complaints from President Donald Trump and some of his supporters about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation continue to grow stronger, as do their calls to shut it down. The nation has been down this road before — in the 1990s, when it was Democrats complaining about another independent counsel investigation during Bill Clinton’s presidency. That one began with a failed real estate deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater and ended with Clinton fighting impeachment on charges he lied about oral sex with a White House intern.
A comparison is illustrative, especially for the way it reveals the sameness and differences between the two probes and why Mueller’s probe and its satellite cases are more vital to our nation.
DATE STARTED: Jan. 20, 1994, when Attorney General Janet Reno named Robert B. Fiske Jr. as special prosecutor to investigate President Bill Clinton.
DURATION: 8 years
COST: $70 million
WHY IT STARTED: A New York Times story in 1992 reported that then-candidate Clinton and his wife, Hillary, along with friends Jim McDougal and Susan McDougal, formed the Whitewater Development Corp. and invested and lost money in a real estate deal in Arkansas. The McDougals also owned Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which failed; the connection between Whitewater and Madison Guaranty was also part of the probe.
WHERE IT WENT: Far beyond Whitewater. Kenneth Starr, who took over Fiske’s probe as independent counsel on Aug. 5, 1994, investigated billing records for Hillary Clinton’s law firm, her role in the firings of seven employees of the White House’s travel office, and a White House aide accessing FBI background files for hundreds of appointees of previous Republican administrations.
In 1998, Starr received audiotapes from federal employee Linda Tripp of her conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that contradicted Lewinsky’s earlier statement that she had no sexual relationship with Bill Clinton. The Lewinsky relationship came up in a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones against the president for alleged sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas. Starr got court permission to investigate the Lewinsky matter, which led to the House of Representatives impeaching Clinton for lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky and obstruction in the Jones case.
RESULTS: Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999. The final Whitewater report, delivered in 2002 by the third independent counsel, Robert W. Ray, found insufficient evidence that either Bill or Hillary Clinton had committed any crimes. In all, 15 people were convicted on various charges stemming from the initial Whitewater probe, including Jim and Susan McDougal. Webster Hubbell, a law partner of Hillary Clinton who later worked in Clinton’s Department of Justice, pleaded to overbilling clients at his law firm.
RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE
DATE STARTED: May 17, 2017, when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Mueller as special counsel after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Mueller took over several FBI investigations begun under Comey. Mueller’s charge was to probe Russian interference in the 2016 election and any links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, as well as any matters that directly arise from the investigation.
DURATION: 15 months so far
COST: In his first 11 months, Mueller spent $7.7 million (using Whitewater accounting standards).
WHY IT STARTED: The FBI received a report from an Australian diplomat that in March 2016, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos met in London with a professor who had ties to Russian government officials who had “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands” of emails. On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks started to release hacked Democratic National Committee emails just before the kickoff of the Democratic National Convention. On July 25, the FBI acknowledged it was investigating the hacking, part of its probe into Russian election interference. On July 31, the FBI started a counterintelligence investigation based on the information about Papadopoulos. In January 2017, the U.S. intelligence community announced it had concluded with “high confidence” that Russia had conducted a campaign to influence the 2016 election.
WHERE IT WENT: Judged by the indictments it has produced, the investigation mostly has remained focused on Russia’s election meddling and contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. In two separate actions, Mueller indicted a total of 25 Russian nationals and three companies on charges related to election interference and hacking.
The indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates on charges of bank fraud and tax fraud stemmed from Manafort’s consulting work for pro-Russian Ukrainian leaders and his ties to a Russian oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Mueller uncovered evidence of potential criminal activity not directly related to the investigation by Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Mueller passed it on to the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. That was the office that secured the guilty plea from Cohen last week.
RESULTS: To date, the investigation has resulted in the indictments of 36 individuals and entities, six guilty pleas and one conviction. In February, Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals, alleging that they engaged in an operation on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to influence the 2016 election. The indictment said the Russians used stolen identities of Americans to open financial accounts, opened social media accounts pretending to be Americans, bought ads, organized and financed rallies, and spread information to promote Trump and harm Clinton. In July, 12 Russian military intelligence officers were indicted on charges of hacking and leaking the DNC emails.
Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about contacts with Russians, as did Papadopoulos. Richard Pinedo, a California man, pleaded guilty to an identity-theft charge related to the Russian indictments. Longtime Manafort associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russia-based operative, was charged with witness tampering in Manafort’s case. Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to making false statements about contacts with Gates and an unidentified person based in Ukraine. Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations for making payments in exchange for silence from two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump; Cohen said he acted “in coordination and at the direction of ” Trump and did so “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” Manafort was convicted on eight charges of bank and tax fraud. Gates pleaded guilty to similar charges. Most of those who pleaded guilty are cooperating with Mueller. Mueller also continues to investigate Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and political dirty trickster who provocatively claimed he knew about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s plans to release material damaging to Clinton. Stone has said that a Trump campaign aide set up a meeting for him with a Russian national who asked for $2 million in exchange for dirt on Clinton. Mueller’s July indictment of Russian operatives quoted some private messages Stone exchanged with Guccifer 2.0, the online avatar for the Russian DNC hackers, without identifying Stone by name. Stone says he expects to be charged with a crime.
There are many similarities between the Whitewater probe and the investigation into Russian election interference. In both, the neutrality of the chief investigator was attacked. Both were conducted amid fierce partisan rancor. Each became focused on instances of illicit if consensual sex.
But there is one profound difference:
Kenneth Starr turned the investigation of a failed $203,000 land deal in Arkansas into an exploration of Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Robert Mueller took the investigation of Russian election meddling and possible links with the Trump campaign and continues on the exact same track. And he’s doing it as Trump regularly tries to undermine the probe, the Justice Department, the intelligence community and other American institutions. The stakes are high. So is the hypocrisy.
Mueller’s adherence to his mandate and Starr’s drift from his make his recent expression of concern that Mueller is “out on a fishing expedition” all the more ludicrous.
One Trump complaint about Mueller’s investigation is that “flipping” — when prosecutors convince a target of their investigation to cooperate — “almost ought to be illegal.” It’s an absurd contention. Flipping is a routine practice that has brought down mobsters and dishonest bankers. The jury that heard the case against Manafort brushed aside any concerns about Gates, who did flip, looked at all the evidence and convicted Manafort on eight charges of tax and bank fraud.
Trump also tries to discredit the investigation by saying that some charges, like those against Manafort and former Trump lawyer Cohen, have nothing to do with Russian collusion. It’s too early to tell with Manafort, as his second trial is expected to involve his connections overseas. And Manafort was at the Trump Tower meeting set up so Russians with connections to Putin could offer dirt on Clinton.
Cohen’s bank fraud problems related to the purchase of taxi medallions don’t directly connect to the Russia probe, which is why Mueller sent it to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. But Cohen negotiated to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the campaign, and he was in the circle of people involved with Trump’s SoHo project that investigators are examining as a vehicle for wealthy Russians to launder money.
Now Cohen and the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, are cooperating with federal prosecutors. They could help Mueller establish the relevance of Trump’s business dealings with the Russians.
This is the way law enforcement investigations are conducted: Follow the evidence. Are Mueller’s critics arguing that he should have ignored information about crimes committed by Manafort and Cohen?
Consider this scenario: A house is on fire. Police arrive and smell kerosene, making it a likely arson investigation. After the fire is put out, they discover a body riddled with bullets in the house. Now there’s a homicide. When they explore the property to find clues about the murder, they find two stolen cars in the garage. That’s another crime to pursue. When they visit the next-door neighbor to find out what he might have seen, he doesn’t want to talk. But the police discover he’s a drug dealer. They charge him with selling drugs and then use the possibility of a prison term to flip him, getting him to tell them everything he saw take place at the burning house. That leads to arrests for the arson, homicide and car thefts.
Mueller is doing the same thing. This kind of work takes time. It won’t be wrapped up anytime soon. But Mueller is moving methodically, and his track record is strong. All six Americans he indicted have pleaded guilty or were convicted.
This is not a witch hunt. Mueller has not veered off track. And now more than ever, America needs the truth he is pursuing.