UNITED STATES: Developments in Mueller investigation likely to prompt political upheaval

The wide-ranging probe into allegations of Russian interference and co-operation between its government and the 2016 election campaign team of President Donald Trump gained momentum in November. The ‘Mueller investigation’ – named after special counsel Robert Mueller who leads it – is likely to be a litmus test for the final two years of Trump’s presidency and will test the Democrats’ ability to effectively use their recently acquired majority in the lower house.

On 7 November, Jeff Sessions finally resigned as attorney-general after receiving vehement criticism from Trump since recusing himself from the Russia investigation in March 2017. Matthew Whitaker, a vocal critic of the Mueller investigation, replaced Sessions as acting attorney-general. The appointment of Whitaker, which circumvented the established line of succession at the Department of Justice (DoJ), has aroused suspicion that Trump is seeking to close down Mueller’s probe before it could implicate the president himself.

President Trump
President Donald Trump

Since the investigation began in May 2017, over 30 individuals, including five of Trump’s former aides, have been issued with indictments for a range of federal crimes. All five of Trump’s aides, including Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, have since pleaded guilty to charges made against them. Cohen admitted on 29 November at a federal courthouse in New York City that he had lied to Congress about the proposed construction of a skyscraper, to be known as ‘Trump Tower’, in the Russian capital Moscow. His claim sparked a furious reaction from Trump, who lambasted his former lawyer on Twitter. However, none of these charges yet relate to Russia’s alleged interference or the campaign team’s suspected co-operation with Russia.

The indictments against Trump’s associates and their guilty pleas are likely to be followed by further charges against both Trump’s business associates and his 2016 campaign team

Other developments in the probe indicate a heightened likelihood of significant partisan confrontation in Congress over the investigation in the six-month outlook. On 20 November, Trump submitted written answers to approximately a dozen questions covering five topics posed by Mueller. These relate to issues prior to Trump’s 2016 election victory, and are therefore likely to include questions about his business dealings with Russia and his campaign team’s contacts with members of the Russian government.

Recent developments have heightened the risk of political instability, which would have important implications for the Trump presidency, his legislative agenda, and the national and international economy.

The firing of Sessions and recent moves in Mueller’s investigation have raised the likelihood of the Russia probe dominating U.S. politics in the six-month outlook. The indictments against Trump’s associates and their guilty pleas are likely to be followed by further charges against both Trump’s business associates and his 2016 campaign team. Trump has repeatedly described the investigation as a ‘witch hunt’ and his request for Sessions’ resignation has already shown that he has attempted to limit the effectiveness of the probe and denigrate its special counsel.

Robert Mueller
Special counsel Robert Mueller

In the likely circumstance that further indictments and guilty pleas are entered, this would be followed by further actions by the executive to either paralyse the investigation through cuts to its funding, or cancel it completely. Despite this, the Democratic Party – which took control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections – would likely counter such moves. New lower house speaker Nancy Pelosi has already called on Democrats to protect the investigation’s funding in a government funding bill.

Such recent developments have heightened the risk of political instability, which would have important implications for the Trump presidency, his legislative agenda, and the national and international economy. If Mueller’s report – likely to be published by the middle of 2019 – is highly critical of Trump, his campaign team and his business dealings, there is a high risk that Democrats will begin impeachment proceedings in Congress. Alternatively, if it finds little evidence of co-operation between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, he will be strengthened politically, increasing his chances of re-election in 2020. The Mueller investigation will have important implications for the U.S.’s political and economic future, and should be followed carefully by all parties with political or commercial interests in the U.S.

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