When Newt Gingrich humiliates himself by smearing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it is all too easy to dismiss the former speaker. As a disgraced politician who left office under an ethical cloud, following a decade spent debasing American discourse, Gingrich has no standing to criticize Mueller, a decorated Vietnam veteran who enjoys broad bipartisan esteem after a lifetime devoted to public service.
But others have seized on the Gingrich theme, complaining of Mueller’s supposed bias against Trump, for which the sole evidence appears to be a few donations to Democratic campaigns by lawyers on the special counsel staff. Apparently the only way to guarantee “fairness” is to appoint a hardcore Republican to every position.
Such deep concern over the partisan affiliation of a special counsel or an independent counsel is something new for the Republicans. None of them voiced any qualms when, under the old Independent Counsel Act, a panel of three Republican judges consistently appointed Republican prosecutors to investigate a Democratic administration, as they did several times when Bill Clinton was president.
Blatantly biased against Clinton, that judicial panel — headed by an intemperate, outspoken, and extremely rightwing jurist named David Sentelle — was caught rigging the appointment of Kenneth Starr to replace the first Whitewater independent counsel, Robert Fiske. Although Fiske too was a Republican, he was an experienced prosecutor and a straight arrow who was disposing of the Whitewater charges against the Clintons too swiftly and dispassionately to serve his party’s purposes. Frustrated Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the media demanded his removal.
As Fiske’s successor, Starr had no prosecutorial experience but his partisan credentials were certainly in order: a former Republican judicial appointee and solicitor general, active in the Virginia GOP and the Federalist Society, adviser to right-wing nonprofits and counsel to the tobacco industry and many other Republican-oriented corporations. He was perfect, if perfection meant an independent counsel who would squander tens of millions of dollars, prosecute irrelevant defendants, and instigate a wholly unrelated probe of Clinton’s sex life, all in order to bring down the Democratic president.
Starr himself had no idea how to conduct an investigation. But he immediately hired a thoroughly ideological Republican staff that did — including deputy independent counsel Hick Ewing, a former U.S. Attorney in Memphis renowned for his right-wing fundamentalist zeal; and deputy independent counsel Jackie Bennett, a former federal prosecutor in south Texas, where he pursued cases against Democratic officeholders with mixed success and came to be known as “the Thug.”
Starr’s operation reflected the political orientation of nearly all of the independent counsel investigations under Clinton. And when Starr left, his replacement was Robert Ray, who actually ran for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in New Jersey in 2002, only months after he filed the Office of Independent Counsel’s final report on Whitewater.
With few exceptions, every independent counsel or special counsel since the Reagan era has been a Republican, whether the investigation involved a Democratic or Republican administration. If a Democratic judicial panel had appointed a series of Democratic prosecutors, the Republicans would still be screaming two decades later.
Trump should consider himself lucky to escape the outrageously biased appointment process used to torment Clinton and his appointees under the Independent Counsel Act, which expired in 1999. And he ought to stop whining about the special counsel, a Republican chosen by his own deputy attorney general.
If Trump had any self-respect, he would have to acknowledge that Robert Mueller is one of the most admired figures in law enforcement and public service of the past 50 years, among Democrats and Republicans alike. Isn’t that why Trump considered reappointing Mueller as FBI director? Gingrich hailed Mueller’s appointment, before realizing that was no longer the Trump party line. And Trump defense flack Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department official, told Politico, “You’ll never hear me say a bad thing about Bob Mueller.” Democratic leaders have echoed those same sentiments many times over, for good reason: It would be difficult to find a figure in law enforcement with a better reputation for fairness, integrity, and professionalism.
Every effort to discredit Mueller, from Fox News Channel to quasi-fascist social media, only underscores the right’s desperation and fear — and sharpens the growing suspicion of Trump’s guilt. His friends would better serve the White House with silence.