In this Q&A he explains the impetus for writing the book, the surprising history of special prosecutors and what may be next in current special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.
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What made you want to write this book?
I wrote the book because everyone I knew -- and lots of people I didn't know -- were desperate to understand how special prosecutors work. It turned out no one had written a book about them for a general audience. So I decided to do it myself.
What did you find out about the history of this role that surprised you?
Many people know that Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, but he was not the first president to do so. Ulysses Grant fired the first special prosecutor in U.S. history when his investigation got too close to Grant's inner circle. Harry Truman also fired a special prosecutor. Grant and Truman were good presidents and admirable men in many ways, but these episodes represent a major stain on their legacies, especially Grant's.
Did special prosecutors become more famous in the 20th century, or does it simply seem this way due to the way they have been covered by the media?
More special prosecutors have been appointed since 1973 than in all prior years combined, but the institution is hardly a modern innovation. Ulysses S. Grant appointed the first special prosecutor in 1875. Ever since, presidents of both parties have appointed special prosecutors to neutralize political scandals and signal their commitment to the rule of law. There was a bit of a lull in the mid-20th century.
Are there any parallels between previous special prosecutor investigations and the Mueller investigation today?
The most important parallel is that political pressure has forced President Trump to put up with Mueller's investigation, basically against his will. It is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Trump loves to violate longstanding norms. And he clearly has the power to fire Robert Mueller if he thinks he can get away with it. But Mueller still has a job, even as his investigation appears to close in on the president and his closest advisors. Of course, we don't know what that investigation will turn up. But this is exactly how the Watergate special prosecutors managed to bring down Richard Nixon.
Why can the special prosecutor be fired by the president at any time? Isn't that counterintuitive?
It is counterintuitive, it hasn't always been that way, and many other countries take a different approach. On the other hand, the American system isn't entirely crazy. The basic idea behind it is this: Special prosecutors, no less than presidents, can abuse their power. To prevent this, they must be accountable to someone, preferably an elected official. As the head of the federal executive branch, the president is the logical choice-and arguably the only constitutional one. If he exercises that power corruptly or capriciously, special prosecutors have no legal remedy. But they are not unprotected. The president must ultimately answer to the American people. This has proved a surprisingly powerful deterrent, though also a fragile one.
What is the one thing you hope readers of the book will remember?
Special prosecutors can do much to hold presidents accountable, but they are incapable of saving us from ourselves. Ultimately, only the American people can decide whether the president is above the law.