- - Sunday, May 6, 2018


Every zookeeper knows it’s important to keep the animals fed on an orderly schedule. It’s dangerous to keep the critters waiting for their grub. They want fresh meat, and want it served on time.

Special prosecutors know this, too. Robert Mueller, the special counsel who has been in hot pursuit of Donald Trump for lo! these many months, seems to be out of fresh meat, and the hyenas, alligators and rattlers are getting restless. He’s looking again for something to satisfy them. He has twice indicted Paul Manafort, the president’s early campaign manager, and now he may be tempted to indict him again just to avoid a riot at feeding time at the zoo.

Mr. Mueller’s job is not easy. When he took the job he thought he had a slam dunk. Everybody who was anybody in Washington agreed, as Politico magazine counted the ways, that the president “is mendacious, graceless and a misogynist on steroids, whose character, temperament, historical cluelessness, and utter incapacity for self-reflection make him by any measure the most unfit occupant of the White House ever.”

Such a president should be easier to indict than the famous ham sandwich of every prosecutor’s dreams. Some of the Democrats wanted to impeach Mr. Trump right after the election he won, not wanting to wait until he was sworn in, though making the winning of an election an impeachable offense seemed a stretch even to many Democrats. With all that advantage, eliminating the president with extreme political prejudice so far has not turned out to be the slam dunk Mr. Mueller and the Democratic masses in Washington thought it would be.

Prosecutors by definition can get away with a lot, but a prosecutor who abuses his quarry must have what Hillary Clinton would call an “irredeemable” quarry. Being merely a “deplorable” is usually not enough. Mr. Mueller needs more than public opinion, which can be fickle. The president’s approval rating, as measured by Rasmussen, the most reliable public-opinion polling firm over the last several election cycles, now puts it at 51 percent, meaning that more Americans now approve of the president than those who don’t. Mr. Mueller should remember what Stormy Daniels could tell him, that veils, cloaks, fans and feathers can only satisfy for a little while. The customers eventually want to see the goods. The time for Mr. Mueller to put up or shut up approaches.

Mr. Mueller got a scent of this on Friday, when a federal judge in Virginia suggested that the special counsel might have exceeded his authority in pursuit of Mr. Manafort, his favorite usual suspect.

“I don’t see what relationship this [Manafort] indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III told him. “It’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me that the special counsel has unfettered power to do whatever he wants.” The charges against Mr. Manafort include tax and bank fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent when he worked as a lobbyist for the government of Ukraine. None of the charges, however, relate to President Trump’s presidential campaign or accusations that he colluded with Vladimir Putin to cook the election results.

Mr. Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, argued that the charges against his client should be dropped because they grew out of an FBI investigation in 2014, long before Mr. Mueller’s inquiry began. “Our investigative scope does cover the activity [in the indictment,” Michael Dreeben, the special counsel’s lawyer, said. Replied the judge: “Cover bank fraud in 2005 and 2007? Tell me how!”

His Honor wanted to know why a “run-of-the-mill bank fraud case” with no visible “reference to any Russian individual or Russian bank” could not have been routinely referred to the U.S. attorney’s office, as Mr. Mueller referred the FBI investigation of Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer, to a U.S. attorney in Manhattan. Mr. Dreeban declined to discuss the Cohen case.

But he said Mr. Mueller’s writ to investigate Paul Manafort and his Ukrainian client was set out in a memorandum by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy U.S. attorney general who commissioned Mr. Mueller. Judge Ellis observed that his copy of the memorandum was highly redacted, or edited, and gave the Mueller lawyers two weeks to give him an unredacted version. When the lawyer assured him that the redacted portions of the memo did not pertain to the Manafort case, Judge Ellis retorted sharply: “I’ll be the judge.”

There’s the expectation in the Washington zoo that something is about snap. One pundit at The Washington Post detects “the sour smell of panic” in the air. He’s no doubt correct. But it may not be a sour odor on a breeze from the White House, but from the animals snapping at the feet of Robert Mueller.

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