PARIS -- As the special counsel investigation headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller grinds on, some might be wondering what's taking so long. Although Mueller's primary mandate was to investigate potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the special counsel and his team have license to pursue other leads that might involve the sort of criminal conduct and corruption that has become normalized -- some might call it "business as usual" -- in Washington.
Some of the first charges brought by Mueller's team involved systemic corruption. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency director and President Donald Trump's national security adviser for 24 days, was less than forthright about his lobbying activities on behalf of Turkey right up until the 2016 election, according to Justice Department filings. House Democrats issued a report last month that expressed concern over Flynn's role in selling Trump on a plan to sell sensitive American nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Trump's short-lived campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had been an international wheeler-dealer for years, was convicted on multiple counts of tax and bank fraud.
It would be a mistake to interpret finance-related convictions as having nothing to do with politics. High-end political corruption involves money, which is tangible and traceable, and financial crimes often carry heavy penalties.
Some financial crimes, such as money laundering, can be tried at both the state and federal levels. So if someone is counting on a presidential pardon, which can only apply to federal crimes, they can't escape justice if they're also convicted of a financial crime at the state level.
One of the criticisms leveled at the special counsel investigation is that it places Trump's entourage under the microscope for activities that have long been standard operating procedure in Washington. Why, for example, could the Clinton Foundation solicit millions of dollars from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was serving as secretary of state?
Trump is probably correct when he claims that his administration is being held to a different standard. Are the Beltway grifters clinging to Trump any more tightly than they clung to his predecessors? Not necessarily. Some of them have been hanging around looking to profit from "their guy" being in office since at least the George W. Bush administration.
The special counsel investigation could conceivably cover ALL forms of foreign interference in American politics, and the investigation may not lead where anyone initially thought it would.
Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee sent letters and document requests to 81 individuals and entities associated with the Trump administration, campaign, businesses and transition team members. At least some of the letters explicitly request documents related to "Trump Campaign or Trump Transition contacts or communications with or regarding the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia."
Despite the pretext of purported Russian interference serving as a starting point, the House inquiry (like Mueller's) could very well end up revealing attempts by other countries -- notably Persian Gulf states -- to influence American politics.
Russian money carries very little weight in Washington, but the quest to uncover Russian interference may end up being the spark that burns down the entire corrupt Washington system.
Mueller would need to detail the undue influence that foreign countries have on America's leadership and send a strong message by indicting those caught self-servingly colluding with other nations to undermine America's interests. Unless Mueller is able to impose serious consequences for such collusion, we will always see things that don't make sense: new wars, lack of interest in ending old ones, double standards involving so-called "rogue states," and even tolerance toward gruesome acts of murder and the sponsorship of terrorism.
Just because Washington has long been a cesspool doesn't mean that it should always be one. Nor does it mean that Trump should get a pass because his predecessors did. If there's an immediate opportunity to enact change, it should be seized.
It may be Trump's misfortune that the music just happens to stop while he's in office. But if Mueller succeeds in shining a bright light on how foreign money rigs politics against citizens' best interests, America will be better for it.
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