Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The History And Reach Of Special Counsels


Robert Mueller's been appointed special counsel to investigate Russian meddling, Michael Flynn's hiring, James Comey's firing, links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Who knows what else? Democrats seemed exultant this week. Many Republicans seemed to hope a high-profile investigation might give them some respite from the hourly news flashes. What is the history of special counsels and what they wind up doing? We turn now to Stephen Carter, Yale law professor, novelist and Bloomberg View columnist. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: It's always a pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: You've cautioned that special counsels often wind up investigating matters that are only distantly related to the scandals they're appointed to go into.

CARTER: Well, it's funny the way that we always have these high hopes that the special counsel we appoint is going to get to the bottom of whatever the scandal is, and that is rarely the case. We can - we forget sometimes that for example Ken Starr, the special - the special prosecutor during the Clinton administration, was originally appointed to investigate Travelgate and Whitewater.

SIMON: Yeah.

CARTER: And Patrick Fitzgerald, during the George W. Bush presidency, never actually prosecuted anyone for the crime he was assigned to investigate, which was the leaking of the identity of a CIA analyst to the press. So we have a long history of appointing these counsels in the hope that they're going to get to the bottom of something. What we end up doing is maybe someone lies to investigators - and you shouldn't lie to investigators, and that's fine. They may be punished. But for the underlying crime, we often never do find what went on or if it was a crime at all.

SIMON: And they take a lot of time, too, don't they? I mean, Patrick Fitzgerald, I think it was almost four years.

CARTER: It could take years and years and years. And in that sense, one of the reasons that Republicans are probably giving a bit of a sigh of relief is that once the special counsel takes over, you get a breather because there is the time the counsel spends getting everything ready and then there's the time of the investigation, which can take a long time. We tend to be in a hurry in America. We like things neat and pat. But if you appoint someone good - and Robert Mueller, by all accounts, is very, very good - you're going to have to deal with the fact that this person is going to try to actually investigate as opposed to write a news story about what may have happened.

SIMON: Could Robert Mueller - this thought has occurred to me in the past couple days - could he compel President Trump to produce his tax returns?

CARTER: (Laughter) Well, we don't know. That is, presidents have certainly been ordered in the past to comply with subpoenas for various criminal investigations. It doesn't happen often, but it happened to Bill Clinton, and it happened to Richard Nixon. So certainly a president can be compelled. Now, the court would have to decide whether the subpoena was reasonable or something like that. If - I think that if Mueller really had good grounds to think that there was something in the president's tax returns that was crucial to the investigation, I think the court might well order the president to turn the tax returns over.

SIMON: Stephen, I have to ask you this, as somebody who clerked for Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, and you have written books with titles like "Civility" and "Integrity," how serious do you see these charges against President Trump and the Trump administration?

CARTER: In all honesty, there are two ways to look at this, and I try to take the more optimistic view. I think a special counsel is a very, very serious matter, and we should treat it with gravity. I don't like the idea of people dancing and holding handsprings and so forth and so on. So that bothers me a little bit. But I do think that some of these charges, if they're true, really make a difference. And in particular, when we look at Russian interference in the campaign to the extent that the campaign may have somehow been complicit in that, that's a very, very serious charge. We don't know if it's true or not, but we should behave as though we know whether it's true. But if it does turn out to be true, that's very, very serious.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale Law School and the esteemed novelist. Thanks so much for being back with us, Stephen.

CARTER: It is always a pleasure. Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.