Republicans trying to hobble Robert Mueller’s sprawling probe into President Donald Trump and Russia matters are about to get a new weapon: the special counsel’s budget.
Lawmakers haven’t yet seen the Russia investigator’s first spending report, which must go through a Justice Department review before being made public. But they’re already setting up a fight over how much the probe is costing taxpayers — and the fact that there’s no end in sight.
“For them to say to us, ‘Vote for an open-ended appropriation into a Mueller witch hunt,’ I think you’ll see significant objection there,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told POLITICO.
Mueller’s public budget is expected to contain only top-line figures covering broad categories like staff salaries, travel, outside contracts, supplies and equipment. But money will become a recurring fight as the investigation drags on, because Mueller is required to produce public expense reports every six months — giving opponents repeated opportunities to paint him in a negative light.
Partisan complaining about the expenses that pile up during lengthy Washington investigations is a familiar ritual. As President Bill Clinton faced impeachment in the House in 1998, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr a “federally paid sex policeman spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse.”
Outcry over spending of taxpayers’ money also cropped up during the Iran-Contra investigation, whose outlays ultimately exceeded $47 million. “Taxpayers of this country should be absolutely up in arms about it,” then-Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) said during a CNN appearance in 1992, six years into that probe.
Complaints about spending over the Russia probes date to before Mueller’s appointment in mid-May. Trump himself took to Twitter just one day before he fired FBI Director James Comey — kick-starting the whole special counsel process — to say: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
Critics have only gained momentum as Mueller’s probe has advanced. King in a July interview called for legislation imposing both a deadline and budget constraints on Mueller; otherwise, the Republican congressman warned, Trump could face “a never-ending investigation that could go on for two presidential terms.”
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) tried in August to offer an amendment to the House budget resolution that would have halted Mueller’s funding just six months into the job. “No fishing expeditions,” he told Fox News as he tried to sell the measure.
While DeSantis couldn’t overcome a procedural technicality and never got a floor vote, conservatives say they’re just getting started. The right-leaning watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit earlier this month seeking Mueller’s budget documents. Several Republicans said in interviews they’d be keeping tabs on the special counsel’s spending through their oversight capacity, and they will hold out the threat of attaching language to DOJ’s annual spending bill or other must-pass legislation that places clear restrictions or prohibitions on Mueller’s authority.
“We still have power over the Department of Justice,” warned Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another Judiciary Committee member.
As a practical matter, Congress can’t go after Mueller’s day-to-day spending directly. His budget is being drawn out of a permanent Treasury Department account that is not subject to the annual appropriations process, and the DOJ regulations used to appoint Mueller state he “shall be provided all appropriate resources” to do his work.
Mueller is subject to some oversight. He had to produce a budget proposal to DOJ earlier this summer for the next fiscal year. And an internal DOJ audit office must review the first 4½ months of his spending receipts. Mueller isn’t under day-to-day DOJ supervision, but Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, does have final say on some of the major decisions related to the Mueller probe, including his budget.
Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, said the internal DOJ review must be completed before the special counsel’s spending report is made public. He declined to comment when asked about a timeline for its release.
While firm details on how much Mueller has spent to date remain under wraps, sources familiar with the special counsel’s budget process say they expect the report to count up the salaries of 11 government attorneys who have been detailed from across other parts of DOJ, as well as five more people hired from outside government who are being paid using the scale for senior staff serving in a U.S. attorney’s office. Mueller himself is earning the same $161,900 salary as a U.S. attorney.
The special counsel’s spending report also will likely count any rent for office space in a Southwest Washington, D.C., office building — whose exact location remains a closely held secret — that his team has been using since the summer, according to sources familiar with Mueller’s budget process.
Politically, Mueller, a former FBI director appointed by President George W. Bush, can count on some degree of bipartisan support from lawmakers who say they expect he’ll lead a budget-savvy investigation.
“I’d be inclined to approve it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key member on both the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary committees. “He seems to be a pretty frugal guy.”
Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee since before the Clinton impeachment hearings, said in an interview earlier this week that he had no concerns about Mueller’s spending “unless it’s something totally outrageous.”
The special counsel’s Republican budget critics, Conyers added, represent the “few people who are sensitive about it.”
“Whatever figure he comes up with, they won’t like it too much,” he said.
Given Mueller’s mandate — lawmakers note he’s examining the authenticity of the presidential election — several Democrats said he should have some running room to spend what he needs to.
“In view of the amount of money that we spend as a nation in any given year, clarifying what happened under these very serious circumstances I think is important today and it’s important for history’s sake,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. “We’re talking about the believability of any election in this county and we’re talking about undue influence by a nation that has never been known to support the principles of liberty or justice and there’s a lot at stake here.”
“He’s going to do what he can to acquit himself well. He’s got no ulterior motives. No fish to fry. He doesn’t have any aircraft carriers he’s got to buy from some contractor friend,” added Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior House Judiciary Committee member.
Nadler also said he’s not expecting Mueller to be held too tightly to subsequent budget requests because of unexpected circumstances that might arise given his wide-ranging investigation into the Trump campaign and the election.
Any Republican bid to meddle with Mueller via his budget will come with political risks, according to lawmakers, several longtime congressional observers and attorneys who have worked on special counsel investigations.
Charlie Houy, the former Democratic staff director on the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged “ample precedent” for Congress to try to gain some control over the spending on a special counsel probe. “However,” he added, “it would be real tricky to not be charged with trying to impede the investigation. That in itself should cause cooler heads to urge caution.”
Lawmakers who try to micromanage the probe could also be accused of messing with the justice system itself, said Randall Samborn, a Chicago-based lawyer who served as spokesman for then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald during the George W. Bush-era special counsel probe into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
“Could you only imagine what would happen, whether it’s this investigation or any criminal investigation conducted by DOJ or the FBI, if the Hill started getting involved in setting the budget on a per-investigation basis?” Samborn said. “You could not conduct a confidential secretive grand jury investigation and have the accountability while it’s under way being scrutinized by partisan politics. It’d be the death knell of such an investigation.”
Considering his reputation running the FBI, several sources who have worked for previous special counsels said they expect Mueller will get the leeway he needs to do his work. But Julie Myers Wood, a former lead prosecutor during Starr’s investigation, predicted the good will won’t last forever.
“If the inquiry starts to drag on, I would expect significant attacks on the cost, both in terms of direct cost to the taxpayer and also in terms of the cost of the time it is taking the executive branch to respond to his queries,” she said.
The Starr investigation — as well as the work of three other independent counsels who ran the case — remains the most expensive in U.S. history — costing more than $73 million, according to audits done by the Government Accountability Office. That single Clinton probe, which started in 1994 with an examination of the Clintons’ real estate deals in Arkansas took several unexpected turns over seven-plus years and ended up covering the suicide of White House attorney Vincent Foster, irregularities in the White House travel office, allegations of misuse of confidential FBI files, false statements by a top White House attorney and finally the president’s sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The investigation drew harsh political criticism for many reasons, including its spending: Over the full course of the probe it had more than 225 employees from the Justice Department and other federal agencies, including at least 65 consultants and outside advisers, according to a final report released in 2002.
While the bulk of Starr’s spending was detailed in summary format, on at least one occasion some of the embarrassing budget specifics did go public. House Democrats in 1998 released to the Los Angeles Times internal documents showing spending of $370 a month for a parking space for the independent counsel, a $32,380 bill to survey an Arkansas community where potential jurors would be seated in a trial of the state’s governor, and $30,517 for a psychological analysis of the evidence connected to Foster’s suicide.
Despite the criticism, Starr senior counsel Paul Rosenzweig said “there was never a serious effort” to strip the independent counsel’s spending. “The politics of trying to do so would be terrible optics,” he said.
Six separate investigations during the Clinton administration ran up costs of more than $140 million. President Ronald Reagan faced eight different probes, including Iran-Contra, for a total of more than $84 million, according to a POLITICO review of government audits and reports on their spending.
In all, there have been 21 completed independent counsel and special counsel investigations dating back to the Carter administration. Their total price tag: $231 million — $339 million when adjusted for inflation. Twelve of those cases concluded with no indictments.
Just two of the 21 cases ended with the successful prosecution of a federal official who was named as the primary initial target: Reagan White House aide Michael Deaver, who was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $100,000 in 1988 after being convicted on three counts of perjury stemming from a conflict-of-interest investigation; and Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to a misdemeanor charge for lying to the FBI about payments made to his former mistress. Clinton pardoned Cisneros in January 2001, on his final day in office.
The dearth of successful convictions, King said, is one of the main reasons he said he’s raising alarm about the Mueller probe’s spending.
“Not many people on either side of the political aisle would point to one [special counsel investigation] and say it’s a satisfactory result,” King said. “They’re messy. They’re ugly. They’re not conclusive. And there’s division over them that runs in perpetuity, as long as we remember them in our history.”
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