Will special counsel Robert Mueller indict President Trump for any of the numerous crimes the latter has plausibly committed? Almost certainly not. Will Mueller file a report with the Justice Department — likely meaning Trump’s incoming attorney general, William Barr — that forms the basis for impeachment? Of course we don’t know that yet, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that outcome. In fact, I’d be reluctant to bet five bucks that anything in Mueller’s report will change the political calculus around Trump’s presidency, or hasten his departure from office in any way.
Almost everything University of Arizona law professor Andrew Coan had to say in our Salon Talks conversation was worth hearing. Coan is the author of “Prosecuting the President: How Special Prosecutors Hold Presidents Accountable and Protect the Rule of Law,” a fascinating study of the role played by special prosecutors in America’s legal and political history that could not possibly be better timed.
This story first appeared on Salon.com.
But I think Coan’s most important observation about Robert Mueller’s investigation came in the form of a warning, right at the end of our discussion. Here’s the spoiler:
I think it’s become really an article of faith among liberals that if Mueller’s allowed to complete his investigation he’s going to produce a really damaging report. I think conservatives secretly share this belief, which is why we see them attacking Robert Mueller so relentlessly. I mean, you don’t typically attempt to destroy the person that you think is about to exonerate you. But I don’t think we know enough to be confident that this report will in fact be as damaging as either side assumes.
Maybe that sounds like a buzzkill to many members of the anti-Trump “resistance,” but the message of Coan’s book is remarkably clear, even in his detailed study of special prosecutors past. In the most famous example, Coan provides a detailed and highly compelling account of how Leon Jaworski, the cautious and conservative Watergate special prosecutor, brought down Richard Nixon by naming the president as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Watergate cover-up and laying out a “road map” that would likely have led to Nixon’s impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate.
In a less savory example, Coan describes how Ken Starr’s investigation of a failed real estate deal in Arkansas escaped containment and turned into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, ending with Bill Clinton’s impeachment over lies he told to cover up an extramarital affair. He also explores the instructive failure of Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who spent years untangling the complex history of the Reagan administration’s clandestine deals with Iran and the Nicaraguan rebels but was ultimately unable to bring any of the major figures involved to justice. (That’s not all! Earlier special prosecutors took on scandals within the administrations of Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, James Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant. It’s a treasure trove for history mavens.)
Across all these examples, circumstances, laws and political climates varied immensely, but in exactly none of them did the appointed outside prosecutor ride in on a white charger, clean everything up and dispense justice to all parties. It’s always politics, meaning public scrutiny and public vigilance, that decides whether special prosecutors are allowed to do their jobs and determines what sort of justice (if any) will be dealt to high officials accused of criminal conduct or corruption. That’s certainly what will determine the outcome of the Mueller investigation as well.
There is a strong upside visible here amid the confusion, Coan believes. The fact that special prosecutor investigations continue to happen and are allowed to proceed — including this one — is itself a testament to the enduring strength of our visibly damaged democracy. There is no doubt, in legal or constitutional terms, that Trump has the authority to fire Robert Mueller — or that every previous president afflicted by a special prosecutor could have dismissed that person, limited his powers or crippled his investigation.
Nixon famously fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who preceded Jaworski, a decision that did not end well for the president. Trump has clearly been itching to fire Mueller since virtually the instant the latter was appointed. Trump has rid himself of numerous other officials he believed were disloyal, including the FBI director and the attorney general — but even the most rule-breaky, norm-scorning president in our history has been convinced by aides and underlings that the political cost of cashiering a special prosecutor is simply too high.
As Coan puts it, that illustrates the fact that “the American people are still capable of doing their job.” If we ever see a Mueller report, at the end of all this, and if it ever leads to something resembling justice for a manifestly corrupt president, that will be because we insist on it.
My conversation with Andrew Coan has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can watch the full interview embedded above.