Democrats and their media allies finally got their man. After weeks of political pressure, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein blinked late Wednesday and announced that he has named a special counsel to investigate Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. These expeditions rarely end well for anyone, and Democrats are hoping this one will bedevil the Trump Administration for the next four years.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” said Mr. Rosenstein, which is nice but irrelevant. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the Russia probe, Mr. Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller III, who will now have unlimited time and resources to investigate more or less anything and anyone he wants.
While the decision will provide some short-term political relief, not least for Mr. Rosenstein, it also opens up years of political risk to the Trump Administration with no guarantee that the public will end up with any better understanding of what really happened.
The problem with special counsels, as we’ve learned time and again, is that they are by definition all but politically unaccountable. While technically Mr. Rosenstein could fire Mr. Mueller if he goes too far, the manner of his appointment and the subject he’s investigating make him de facto untouchable even if he becomes an abusive Javert like Patrick Fitzgerald during the George W. Bush Administration.
What the country really needs is a full accounting of how the Russians tried to influence the election and whether any Americans assisted them. That is fundamentally a counterintelligence investigation, but Mr. Mueller will be under pressure to bring criminal indictments of some kind to justify his existence. He’ll also no doubt bring on young attorneys who will savor the opportunity to make their reputation on such a high-profile investigation.
Mr. Mueller has experience in counterintelligence and at 72 years old has nothing to prove. But he is also a long-time Washington player close to the FBI whose director was recently fired, and he is highly attuned to the political winds. As they say in Washington, lawyer up.