Working in President Donald Trump’s White House is about to get a whole lot harder.
Robert Mueller, the former FBI director named Wednesday as the special counsel for investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, starts his job with an unlimited time and budget to pursue leads wherever they go.
Veterans of previous scandals from Whitewater on say that kind of scrutiny can exact a toll even on a well-functioning White House—which Trump’s, consumed as it is by constant infighting and drama, isn’t.
“There’s always a mood in a White House. If you have a special prosecutor, that can dampen the spirit. It just changes things. It makes life more complicated for people who are completely innocent,” said Peter Wehner, a former senior aide to President George W. Bush during the investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity.
“If you’re guilty, obviously it makes it much more difficult. People are fearful whatever they’ve done and transgression they’ve committed is going to be revealed,” added Wehner, who was called to testify before a grand jury during the Plame investigation.
The pressure won’t be limited just to senior staff. From the interns up, having a special prosecutor in place means responding to urgent tasks that have nothing to do with the day-to-day business of the presidency.
One example: searching through thousands of documents for materials relevant to a subpoena. Personal communications also can take on uncomfortable new dimensions as colleagues fret over whether their words can be misconstrued or used against them in grand-jury testimony – and where the penalties for perjury and obstruction of justice have caused serious harm to the reputations and careers of aides who served before them.
“The key was to have a team dedicated to dealing with the [independent counsel] so the rest of the administration could focus on real work,” said Jake Siewert, who served as President Bill Clinton’s final press secretary, in the wake of the Whitewater investigation and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Easier said than done, but not impossible.”
In the Clinton world, the internal strategy included a rule that the White House press secretary didn’t take questions on the ongoing investigations. Instead, reporters working on those stories had to go through specific communications staff who’d been tasked with working just with the White House counsel’s office – a practice that was later adopted by the Obama administration amid repeated congressional investigations, including the Benghazi inquiry.
Aides and lawyers who have been swallowed up by previous White House investigations point to President Ronald Reagan’s troubles defeating veto overrides during the Iran-Contra affair as well as the way Clinton was politically paralyzed in his second term.
“The risk is that you lose control of your agenda,” said Robert Luskin, a Washington white-collar attorney who represented Bush senior adviser Karl Rove in the Plame investigation, as well as a pair of Clinton senior officials during Whitewater. “It’s an enormous distraction. It’s an energy suck. As long as the clouds hang over a presidency it becomes much more difficult to get anything else done.”
“You don’t realize how much of your political capital you’re spending combating and responding to these investigations,” added a former senior Reagan aide.
Many former White House aides acknowledged a take-cover mentality is likely to grow for the Trump administration as aides start seeking out their own personal legal counsel.
“If anyone is in position to give testimony or provide evidence they damn well better have the advice of counsel,” said former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn. “That really is important because if you are anything less than careful, you put yourself in jeopardy even though you may never have gotten near the facts and events that give rise to the investigation.”
Already, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose work in Ukraine has come under review, has a lawyer. So does former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who last week got served with a subpoena by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier Wednesday – before the Mueller news was announced — sidestepped a question about whether Trump himself was considering hiring a personal lawyer to represent him in the ongoing investigation. “If I have any updates for that at some point I’ll let you know,” he told reporters on Air Force One.
Asked if he was representing Trump in a personal capacity on the Russia investigation, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen replied in a phone interview, “I don’t know if he’s made a complete decision. There’s several mitigating factors.”