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A special counsel on Russia is an all-or-nothing deal for Republicans
(CNN)The decision by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion with Donald Trump's campaign officials amounts to a pushing of all the political chips into the center of the table.
It is, without question, a massive political risk for the Trump administration as well as Congressional Republicans -- and a risk undertaken by a man in Rosenstein who hasn't been on the job for a month yet. (The decision to appoint a special counsel comes from the Attorney General. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any and all 2016 investigations due to his failure to disclose two separate meetings with Russia Ambassador Sergey Kisylak during the course of 2016. Therefore, the decision on a special counsel fell to Rosenstein.)
What had become clear over the past few days -- between Trump divulging classified information to two top Russian officials, allegations he had urged then FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Russia and the recused Sessions vetting candidates to succeed Comey -- was that no ruling that would come out of the ongoing FBI investigation would be accepted by the entire country. The congressional investigations into the matter are expected to continue although it remains to be seen how active they will be given the likely deference given to Mueller.
The appointment of Mueller opens up the possibility that, regardless of the ruling he reaches, the country might accept it as unbiased, fair and factual. (The pick drew widespread bipartisan support from members of the House and Senate.) In short: It might allow the country to move on.
"What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command," Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the decision.
Of course, the unimpeachability of Mueller's reputation -- and the likelihood that his investigation and its findings will be seen by the bulk of the country as non-partisan -- is also what makes this such a huge gamble for the Trump administration.
On the one hand, the appointment of a special counsel gives Trump and his campaign a chance at real and full exoneration. "As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity," Trump said in a statement. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."
As I've noted before, Trump's opposition to a special counsel -- which the White House made clear via press secretary Sean Spicer as recently as Tuesday -- never made sense to me. If you believe you are truly innocent and talk of collusion between your campaign and Russia is "fake news" created by the Democrats and the media, you should be wholly in favor of an independent investigation in order to validate that realty.
Trump will now get that chance.
On the other hand, should Mueller's findings implicate senior Trump campaign officials or even the President himself, it will be damn near impossible to discredit those facts. All Democrats will need to do to effectively rebut any attempt to question the findings is surface all of the nice things Republican elected officials have said about Mueller both tonight and in the past. That will make it very, very hard for Republicans to not swallow the medicine that Mueller is doling out.
Republicans -- from Trump on down -- will now live or die by what Mueller finds out. Full exoneration is now possible. But so too is full guilt or blame. Republicans' political fate -- in 2018 and perhaps 2020 as well -- is now largely in Mueller's hands.
You only make this sort of gamble when you believe the full faith and confidence of the American people in their institutions is at stake. Rosenstein clearly believed that all the water already under the bridge on Trump and Russia forced his hand on that front -- and so he acted.
Now Republicans wait with bated breath to see what Mueller produces.