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Editorial: Justice Department was right to name an independent counsel

The question, rocketing around Washington and other parts of the country, is both fundamental and disturbing: Did President Trump commit – or attempt to commit – obstruction of justice?

The fallout from a series of damaging episodes threatens to leave the country and the government punch-drunk, inattentive to the grave dangers unfolding daily in North Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. It needs to end, and that will happen only when Americans know the truth about Trump’s actions.

Even increasing numbers of Republicans are concerned about the mounting suggestions of impropriety. The only path to dealing with them is the traditional one: an honest, impartial investigation whose results can be broadly accepted by the nation and that allows the country to move forward, as quickly as possible.

A special counsel was the obvious answer, and Wednesday night the Justice Department finally acted, naming former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the investigation into Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election. Mueller will have broad power to investigate Russian meddling as well as accusations of contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Mueller has served both Democratic and Republican presidents and his appointment won praise from members of Congress from both parties.

The questions swirling around Washington are certainly significant enough to merit that kind of attention. Consider what has happened in just the past several days:

• Without warning, Trump fired James B. Comey as director of the FBI. He had previously praised him and yet cut him loose, citing a conflicting raft of reasons, including advice from within the Justice Department, anger over Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, claims that FBI morale was low and, finally, acknowledging that it was because of “this Russia thing” – meaning the FBI’s investigation into that nation’s effort to influence the presidential election.

That decision reportedly came only days after Comey had requested additional resources to pursue what was described as an increasingly productive investigation. Is that obstruction of justice? An independent investigation will bring clarity to the matter.

• Earlier this week, Trump was revealed to have inadvertently disclosed the source of highly confidential information to Russian diplomats visiting in the Oval Office. That isn’t a crime, since the president has authority to declassify information, but it raises serious questions both of judgment and, more substantively, of Trump’s relationship with the Russian government. It’s important to get to the bottom of that.

• Most disturbing, reports from associates of Comey described Trump’s effort in February to persuade Comey to drop his investigation of former National Security adviser Michael T. Flynn. That certainly merits the attention of investigators.

What is more, at a previous meeting, Trump reportedly had sought Comey’s “loyalty” to him, rather than to the country or the Constitution or his oath as FBI director.

The events take on an even more urgent tone when viewed chronologically: Trump takes office and seeks loyalty from Comey, who promises only honesty. At a dinner in February, Trump presses Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, whose own failure to acknowledge links to Russia belatedly led to his firing. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump tells Comey, according to multiple reports. But Comey continues investigating Russia’s role in the election and seeks more funding and manpower. Trump fires him, offering differing explanations before acknowledging that the issue was an investigation that directly affects Trump.

How are intelligent, even-keeled Americans supposed to ignore all of that? The president’s loyal supporters will have none of it, but the administration’s ability to govern is being hurt.

These are serious questions. They warrant this investigation by Mueller.

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