President Donald Trump’s response Wednesday night to the appointment of a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia was, by his standards, muted.
Trump did not lash out against any political enemies. His statement contained no personal attacks. There was no boasting about the size of his Electoral College victory.
But Trump’s reaction to the special counsel is in fact a dramatic departure from the standard set by modern American presidents. Previous presidents have emphasized the importance of the special counsel appointments, welcomed the investigations as necessary, and offered personal praise for the law enforcement official suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
Trump does none of the above. In a statement that begins by claiming a “thorough investigation will confirm what we already know,” Trump instead fails to offer even a patina of support for the investigation.
What prior presidents have said about independent investigators
Notably, a special counselor is not the same as a special prosecutor, which is what other former presidents faced. Vox’s Jennifer Williams has a full explainer on the role of a special counselor.
But it’s worth comparing how prior presidents’ statements of special prosecutors compare with Trump’s. In 1986, after Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Walsh was appointed to probe the Iran-Contra affair, President Ronald Reagan praised Walsh’s record.
From the New York Times’s archives:
In a written statement, President Reagan said he welcomed the appointment of ''such a distinguished jurist as Lawrence Walsh.''
''Mr. Walsh has my promise of complete cooperation, and I have instructed all members of my Administration to cooperate fully with the investigation in order to insure full and prompt disclosure,'' he said.
Reagan’s conduct before the appointment of the special prosecutor was also markedly different from Trump’s. As the Los Angeles Times reported in the week leading up to Walsh’s appointment, Reagan said he would follow whatever course of action the Department of Justice thought was correct:
President Reagan, maintaining that he wants "all the facts to come out," said today that he will welcome appointment of a special prosecutor if it is recommended by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to investigate the funneling of Iranian weapons payments to Nicaraguan rebels …
"The Department of Justice investigation is continuing with my full support and cooperation, and if they determine an independent counsel is called for, I would welcome that appointment," Reagan said.
Similarly, President Bill Clinton greeted the appointment of the special prosecutor to probe the Whitewater scandal with a tone drastically different than Trump’s. (You can read Vox’s explainer on what that was all about.)
Mr. Clinton, speaking tonight on "Larry King Live" on CNN, said he understood the need to extend the inquiry to Mr. Foster. "Because he had some files that were relevant, he has to look into what is there," Mr. Clinton said.
"Whatever he wants to look into, let him do that. It's not my business to comment on that." ...
Mr. Clinton said tonight that the special counsel would have free rein to do whatever was needed to investigate the Whitewater affair. "The main thing I want to do is have this turned over to him so that we can get back to work," he said.
Note the difference here — whereas Clinton emphasizes that it’s “not my business to comment” on the special prosecutor, Trump has already leaped to the defensive, concluding that there was “no collusion between my campaign and a foreign entity.”
The comparison to President George W. Bush is just as striking. In December 2003, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate who leaked the name of a CIA operative.
Bush said he welcomed and supported the decision, the Associated Press reported at the time:
President Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, was informed of the decision midday Tuesday and supports it, the White House said.
"He wants to get to the bottom of this. He said in September that he welcomes this investigation and has absolute confidence in the ability of the Justice Department to do a good job," spokesman Trent Duffy said.
Trump, meanwhile, responded to an independent investigation by dismissing its work unnecessary and superfluous. Facing similar circumstances, prior American presidents have gone out of their way to show that they believe the opposite.