WASHINGTON—One of the first things John Danforth did after he agreed to serve as a special counsel investigating the FBI’s 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas: Set up shop more than 800 miles away from Washington.
“I did not want any glare of publicity on what we were doing,” Danforth recalled in an interview on Thursday. So the former U.S. senator found a quiet office in downtown St. Louis, where he lives, and hired a slew of investigators to quietly dig into the case.
Robert Mueller will not have that same luxury, Danforth noted, as the former FBI chief fills the role of special counsel investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any connections between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
Until Wednesday, Danforth was first and only person appointed as a special counsel under a federal law allowing for such independent probes, although the Department of Justice has used different powers to appoint special investigators in other instances.
Danforth said Mueller’s biggest challenge may be keeping a lid on leaks.
“This is not going to be a daily news thing. It can’t be,” he said, adding that he had everyone sign confidentiality agreements for the Waco probe.
Danforth said the road ahead for Mueller includes the same central challenge he faced: Restoring public confidence in one of America’s most treasured institutions.
When he opened his probe in 1999, Danforth recalled, polls showed a majority of Americans believed the FBI agents who raided the complex went in with the intention of killing the Branch Davidian followers inside.
“If people think the FBI is shooting into a burning building — killing innocent people, women and children — then that’s a major breakdown in public confidence,” Danforth said. There were “major conspiracy theories” swirling around the FBI’s handling of the Waco confrontation, he said.
More than 70 men, women and children died in that incident. Danforth determined the fire that caused most of the fatalities was started by Branch Davidian members, and that federal agents were not to blame.
Mueller’s appointment comes amid a much bigger political firestorm. Last week, Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey who had been overseeing the Russia investigation. Comey reportedly kept detailed notes of his conversations with the president, and one of his memos suggests Trump asked Comey to halt an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has come under fire for his ties to Russia and Turkey.
Comey’s memo and Trump's abrupt firing of Comey have fueled questions from lawmakers about whether the president's actions amounted to obstruction of justice.
Danforth said Mueller will have all the tools he needs to get cooperation, including subpoena power, even in the face of pressure from Trump. He dismissed Trump’s tweet on Thursday calling the investigation the “greatest witch hunt” in U.S. history.
“(Mueller is) not in the chain of command with the president, so it’s irrelevant,” Danforth said. “That’s just the president making his own statement.”
Mueller should have a “running start” on the Russia probe, Danforth said, since the FBI has already been investigating the case for months. Mueller can tap those agents for his own team, although he will have to get approval for that and for his budget from the Department of Justice.
Since Danforth was investigating the FBI in the Waco case, he had to turn to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to hire his investigative team. At the outset, he said, he set very clear parameters for the probe, so they wouldn’t “just drift off into the wild blue yonder” and examine extraneous questions.
Danforth said he could not predict where this probe will lead, or whether it will restore the public’s confidence in the U.S. election system or in Trump’s presidency.
In the Waco probe, he said, they ran down “every possible question anyone could ask” and he had each person on his team review the report “page by page” before it was finalized and released. That helped put the controversy to rest, Danforth said, and there was “very little pushback” after he issued his conclusions.
“Whether that kind of exhaustive overkill in this investigation is necessary here, that will be a judgment call for Director Mueller,” Danforth said. But, he added, “I have absolutely no doubt” this will be a fair and thorough investigation.