David R. Irvine: Taking the long view on the special counsel investigation

Who would have imagined an American president doing his level best in 2018 to break up the NATO alliance that has stood as a bulwark against Soviet/Russian aggression in Europe for nearly 70 years? Every U.S. president since Harry Truman has understood its strategic importance and the value of strong U.S. leadership to maintain its collective strength.

That is, every president but one. This would be the same president who has taken pains to ensure that his July 16 meeting with Russian President and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin will be conducted with no other American officials in the room. There will be no record of what is discussed or what Trump may agree to with no witnesses present.

Journalist Jonathan Chait posed the question this way: “Will Trump be meeting with his counterpart or with his controller?”

That question, under other circumstances, would seem absurd, but the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bi-partisan report on July 3, 2018, which confirmed the reliability of an earlier Intelligence Community Assessment (Jan. 6, 2017):

“We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Whether Americans are Republicans, Democrats or independents, the reality that a foreign adversary is seeking to manipulate our election process – and did so in 2016 – should be as alarming as Paul Revere’s cry along the road to Lexington, “The British are coming!”

What happened in Brussels with NATO leaders and what may happen in Helsinki could indicate Putin’s objectives. That’s why the special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller is so necessary and critical. It is in everyone’s interest to know whether partisan political operatives actively colluded with foreign agents to throw an election. Problematically, extremist partisans on both sides are prone to rushing to judgment before the facts are in, which, in this instance does a huge disservice to the rule of law: One side expects to find impeachment-level wrongdoing and the other side attacks the inquiry as completely illegitimate.

The reality is, the public knows relatively little. Mueller is pursuing an intricate inquiry delving into sensitive intelligence, and only limited information can be reported. Until we have details in hand, we shouldn’t jump to extreme conclusions. The fact that so little is known is evidence of Mueller’s careful professionalism. It would be a serious mistake to fire Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to short-circuit the investigation.

This is why Congress should pass S. 2644, the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham,R-S.C., and co-sponsored by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Christopher Coons, D-Dela. The bill, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would provide meaningful and prudent protection for an investigation that is vital to our national security, as well as instill confidence among the American people that justice will prevail.

Legislation to protect the judicial process from presidential interference is in line with opinions expressed by key Utah officials. Sen. Orrin Hatch has stated in no uncertain terms that firing Mueller “would be the stupidest thing the president could do.” Sen. Mike Lee has also come forward to say, “I fully support Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation.”

In light of this information, we cannot in good conscience halt or artificially accelerate our inquiries into the matter, including Mueller’s ongoing investigation. We must understand Russia’s behavior so we can protect our elections from hostile powers. With mid-term elections looming, time is of the essence. The infighting and political grandstanding on display in certain venues only distracts attention from this crucial mission.

In misguided efforts to protect this president, some Trump allies are sowing deep distrust in law enforcement and undermining the very concept of impartial justice. Without these institutions, the American constitutional experiment is over.

The Continental Congress declared independence from monarchy in 1776, casting off a king in favor of republican democracy. Our system of checks and balances ensures that no leader holds absolute power or stands above the law. These norms are more important than any one man — no matter who he is or how popular his message. Without them, tyranny strangles liberty.

This commentary originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.

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