Just about a year ago, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert S. Mueller III special counsel to investigate whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. While Mueller has already produced results, the investigation continues and appears to be picking up steam. Remarkably for a city that leaks like a sieve, the outside world has little idea of what is going on inside the probe. That cuts two ways: It protects the investigation’s integrity but also makes its defense harder when it is attacked as “a witch hunt” by President Donald Trump and his supporters. There is every indication, however, that it will continue at its deliberate and careful pace and will continue to roil U.S. politics for some time to come.
Mueller was appointed May 17, 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, raising questions about the integrity of any internal Justice Department investigation into Moscow’s alleged meddling in U.S. politics. Muller was tasked “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” although the exact terms of his remit remain unknown. When challenged in court, however, Mueller provide a copy of his charge and the judge ultimately backed the special counsel’s actions.
The opacity of the investigation — as best anyone can tell, the team has leaked no information to the media — has given critics room to paint the picture they please. Perhaps no individual has been more vociferous than Trump, who noted the one-year anniversary of Mueller’s appointment by tweeting about “the greatest witch hunt in American History … and there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction.”
While collusion and obstruction of justice remain unproven, Mueller has much to show for his efforts. Thus far, he has charged 19 people and three companies, with a total of 75 criminal charges. Several other actions remain under seal and thus unknown. He has secured five guilty pleas, three of them former Trump campaign or administration officials: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign Chairman Rick Gates and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. All those individuals are cooperating with the investigation and should be able to provide detailed information about the workings of the Trump campaign. One individual is already serving a prison sentence for lying to investigators.
The charges against some individuals appear to diverge from Mueller’s mandate — former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort is accused of crimes related to his business dealings — but that is a time-tested prosecutorial tactic to win cooperation from reluctant witnesses. The fact that Manafort’s judge questioned Mueller’s remit and then backed off suggests that he is not some rogue operative.
While the president’s supporters decry the pace of the investigation, it is moving quickly in comparison to other independent counsels. The probe of then-President Bill Clinton’s dealings — what is known as the Whitewater investigation — yielded charges only after a year and a half and that case stretched on for nearly eight years. Ironically, some of Trump’s defenders who today challenge Mueller laid the legal basis for his actions with their support of the Clinton investigation.
Ultimately, however, the point of the objections is not to stop the investigation but to damage its support among the public. Trump’s “base” has been convinced since it began that the probe was an extralegal attempt to undo the results of the 2016 election. The rest of the U.S. electorate supports the investigation, although its patience is not unlimited. While a majority backs the effort, some polls show shrinking support.
Although the investigation is a domestic political matter for the United States, it could impact Japan. The pressure on the U.S. president could prompt him to take brash actions to shore up dwindling legitimacy or to distract the public. Efforts to “wag the dog” could take any number of forms, but a trade fight could be especially tempting, and Japan has long been in the president’s cross hairs.
The centrality of Russia to the investigation also has implications for Japan. Trump’s predecessors have taken a harder line against Russia than has Trump; their views would make it more difficult for Japan to reach out to Moscow and forge an agreement on the long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries. While there is as yet no proof of collusion between the campaign and Moscow, the conclusion that Russia meddled in the election seems beyond question. That is likely to prompt a hardening of the U.S. position against Russia. Japan must be ready for increased scrutiny of its terms of engagement with Moscow and potential opposition to any eventual deal.