The United States of paranoia

Two weeks ago I was in Russia, touring Saint Petersburg with a guide. She reminded us of a terrorist attack on their subway a few weeks earlier and hinted darkly about a false flag. “People are saying Putin did it to boost his popularity.” Like most of her friends, she disliked Putin.

Wow, I thought. Russians are really paranoid if they go for crazy conspiracy theories like that. But then I realized that we’re no better. We’ve seen no evidence that Trump was influenced by shadowy Russian figures, but we’ve still seen a media feeding frenzy about it. But the absence of evidence doesn’t seem to matter, because along the way our politics became Russified through media-fed conspiracy theories.

It started with stories about the Kremlin’s influence on the Trump campaign. There was no evidence, just innuendo, but in the Russified mainstream media you don’t need evidence. Pretty soon it was hard to tell the difference between the Washington Post and the National Inquirer.

So I have a message for the conspiracy-mongers on the right. Lay off Mueller. Stop with the lunatic speculations about firing him.

What that gave us was Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the investigation, the Comey firing, and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the matter.

We’ve had a long experience with special and independent counsels, and it’s a mixed bag. In Nixon’s time, special counsels were given a broad mandate to investigate any wrongdoing by the president, and Nixon’s decision to fire independent special counsel Archibald Cox was the proximate cause of the president’s downfall.

In other cases, however, giving someone unlimited resources and the broadest mandate to go after a public official didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Liberals loved it when special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby, but were considerably less happy when independent counsel Ken Starr took a probe about financial irregularities into an investigation of Bill Clinton’s sex life.

That’s why, when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller, he gave him a narrow mandate. Mueller was asked to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government at the Trump campaign, or any matter that may arise directly from this, or (given the Comey firing) any obstruction of justice.

So what should Mueller do now? Let me mention a helpful Law Latin tag: ex abundante cautela. It means “out of an abundance of caution.” It’s how lawyers should practice their profession, if they don’t want to be sued for malpractice. And in an abundance of caution, Mueller and his team should diligently follow every lead in the exercise of their mandate. That means looking for any evidence of a financial payoff from Russia to Trump or a member of his team made to influence the campaign. An abundance of caution also includes empanelling a Grand Jury, to take evidence under oath.

That might prove a headache for someone like Paul Manafort who served as a lobbyist for the Russian-backed former president of Ukraine. It’s not going to be a problem for Trump himself, however. So he might have sold some condos to a Russian private citizen ten years back. That’s chicken feed to Trump. With his kind of money, he’s basically non-bribable. It would like trying to bribe Bill Gates with twenty smackeroos.

There’s another reason why things that happen ten years back don’t matter. Mueller’s mandate was to investigate the Trump campaign, which didn’t begin until he launched it in June 2015. Can you imagine some Russian in 2007 telling Trump, “Hey, maybe you’ll run for president in 2016, so let me buy an oceanfront today so I can join the campaign.” Even my paranoid Russian guide wasn’t that crazy.

So I have a message for the conspiracy-mongers on the right. Lay off Mueller. Stop with the lunatic speculations about firing him. He was a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He’s one of the most respected people in Washington, a 72-year old Republican who doesn’t owe anything to anyone.

And lay off his staff. Yes, they’ve donated to the Democratic Party, most of them. That’s doesn’t mean much. Just about every lawyer in D.C. has donated to the Dems. And they’d be happy to wrap this up quickly to get back to their high paying jobs in private practice.

And maybe start believing Trump’s professions of innocence. If only because the alternative is so unbelievable that it takes you into Russian-style paranoia. Leave that for the Washington Post. Expect that, when the Mueller probe winds down, probably in a year, there will be no indictments except possibly for a few greedy souls lower down on the food chain.

And very possibly not even that. Let’s not get sucked into conspiracy theories left or right. How about we go back to the assumption that, until proven otherwise, people should be given the benefit of the doubt, that they should be presumed to be honorable.

That’s a message for Trump too: Be cool.

F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School and is the author of "The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America" (Encounter, 2016).