Michael Zeldin | Spring 2019

Independent Counsels and Presidential Investigations

The intersection of law and politics is never more intense or interesting than when the appointment of an Independent/Special Counsel to investigate the President of the United States is on the table.

This study group will cover past and present special investigations of U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon through Donald Trump.

Michael will share what he has learned as an Independent Counsel (In Re: Janet Mullins -- George H.W. Bush), a Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney, including as Special Counsel to Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller, a Congressional Counsel investigating the holding of American Hostages in Iran,a private sector attorney and consultant, and as a CNN Legal Analyst.

Study Group guests will draw on their personal experiences as Independent Counsel, White House Counsel, outside presidential attorneys, public relations specialists, members of Congress, journalists, and mediaon-air legal analysts.

The study group will include case studies from concluded investigations (Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater/Lewinsky),and, because we live in the age of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III, the real-time laboratory for our exploration will be the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election andalleged collusion by the Trump campaign.

We will focuson all aspects of the investigation of a sitting president of the United States -- the law, politics, and media. (The seminar is not intended to be a typical law school-like class focused strictly on the law and the legal issues that arise in connection with Special Counsel investigations but rather a cross-disciplinary examination of the legal and non-legal issues surrounding such investigations.)


To ensure that all Study Group members have a foundational understanding of the Independent Counsel investigations that we will be studying, it is highly encouraged that all Liaisons watch the 1-hour CNN special on presidential impeachments hosted by Fareed Zakaria before the first class.

Click here to watch.


Week 1: Deep Dive into the Mueller Investigation

Why was he appointed? What is his mandate? How has he proceeded to date? Where might he be going? How will the takeover by the Democrats of the House of Representatives impact Mueller’s work?

Week 2: Congressional Oversight

What is the role of Congress -- from Watergate to Whitewater to the Mueller investigation? When does Congress decide to hold public vs. closed door hearings? How does Congress manage and coordinate competing oversight: House vs. Senate; Congressional Committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs); the political landscape (Democrats vs. Republicans); the search for the truth?

Guest: Congressman Eric Swalwell, D-CA 15th District (Member, House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees)

Week 3: Historical Overview

Setting the table. We will review the history of Independent Counsel investigations from Watergate to Mueller. We also will discuss the legal and political considerations leading to the appointment of an independent counsel and the implications.  This will provide the platform from which we will undertake our inquiry in the coming weeks.

Guests: Tim Naftali, Clinical Associate Professor of Public Service, New York University and Julien Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University

Week 4: On Becoming an Independent Counsel

An Independent Counsel has just been named and a mandate issued. What comes next?  How does the Independent Counsel go about organizing and investigating? What is the role of the Justice Department?  What is the role of Congress? How does the Independent Counsel interface with the media: Engage or Ignore?

Guest: Ken Starr, Independent Counsel, Clinton Whitewater/Lewinsky Investigations

Week 5: The Role of the Press - Covering the Investigation

Covering the White House, Justice Department, and Capitol Hill during the investigation.  Press briefings; Identifying reliable sources: Who can you trust? How do you verify? (How to avoid being spun by your sources); When and what to publish.

Guest: Laura Jarrett, Justice Department Reporter, CNN; and, Rosalind Helderman, Political Enterprise and Investigations Reporter, The Washington Post  

Week 6:  Inside the White House

What happens inside the White House once an Independent Counsel appointment is made? How are legal and political forces marshaled? What are the roles of White House Counsel, the White House Investigative Special Counsel, the Congressional liaison, the Communications Director? How is strategy set? Who’s in charge of responding to the Independent Counsel, Congress, the media, and the public?

Guest: John Dean, White House Counsel for President Nixon (Via Skype), Lanny Breuer, Associate White House Counsel for President Clinton.

Week 7: The Role of the Press—Investigating the President

Investigating the story.  The who, what, when, where, why, and how of the underlying conduct.   When do you publish? How do you protect your sources?

Guest: Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent at Yahoo! News

Week 8: Developing a Media Strategy: How to Create a Message and Work with the Press

Developing a media strategy to help shape the narrative is essential. How is this done? Who runs the show? Cooperate or attack? How do you develop effective Press Relations? How, from a press perspective, is this best achieved? What is the press looking for in developing a level of trust with the media consultants? How do you avoid being spun? How can the press drive the narrative?

Guest: Paul Begala, CNN Political Analyst, Chief Strategist for the 1992 Clinton–Gore Campaign; and Peter Baker, Chief White House correspondent for The New York Times  

Week 9: Lessons Learned/Open Discussion (Final Session)