Especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s dismissal of his Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, many column inches have been devoted to the question of whether his acting successor, Matthew Whitaker will either wind up the Mueller investigation completely or hamstring it in such a way that it is effectively neutralised.
There is no question other than that this is important, not simply because of what might ultimately feature in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report but also in determining the extent to which the President of the United States is subject to due process and the rule of law. I am not, therefore, about to go back even marginally from the headline of my 17 September article to the effect that “Mueller Matters”. However, even if Mr Whitaker were to fire Mr Mueller (which would certainly be bold given question marks over the constitutionality of the former’s appointment), we can now be sure that investigations into various aspects of Mr Trump’s affairs will continue not only in New York but also — and, I think, much more importantly — in Washington.
The key individual in DC stands to be California Congressman Adam Schiff, currently the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and, therefore, its likely Chair from January. Whereas the current Chair, Devin Nunes, has sought to shield Mr Trump from investigations (including Mr Mueller’s) into alleged links with Russia, we can be certain that Mr Schiff will pursue lines of investigation which have been blocked by the now outgoing Republican majority on the committee.
There is, of course, a real risk of severe Democrat overreach going after Mr Trump — in which category I would certainly include any attempt at impeachment (which would certainly fail unless Mr Mueller comes up with particularly damaging evidence of serious malfeasance which the Justice Department agrees to hand over to Congress). But, by all accounts (including a recent article in The Economist — subscriber access only), Mr Schiff is aware of this risk and is determined to focus narrowly on allegations of pre-election Russian payments to Mr Trump’s company which Congress has, to date, ignored. Although Mr Mueller is reportedly looking into these allegations, there is a potentially critical difference, ie anything he uncovers may never see the light of day whereas an essential and explicit purpose of Congressional oversight is to bring the truth to light.
On this basis, it may be that it is the meticulous and measured Mr Schiff, rather than Mr Mueller, who turns out to be Mr Trump’s nemesis.
Addendum — 30 November
The past week has seen two developments which could greatly help Mr Schiff in his investigations.
First, German prosecutors raided Deutsche Bank's Frankfurt HQ in connection with a Russian money laundering investigation which is known to have involved its New York office. Deutsche Bank has long done business with the Trump Organisation and refused last year to hand over documents requested by five Democrat lawmakers, which the then GOP-dominated House Intelligence Committee declined to subpoena.
Second, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's guilty plea in court yesterday will almost certainly lead to further light being shed on Mr Trump's alleged business ties with Moscow.
Paul Manafort's apparent reneging on his deal with Robert Mueller, also this past week, may be something of a setback for ongoing and future investigations. But, if we have seen one step back there, these other two events represent at least two steps forward.