Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just did Donald Trump a favor.
It may not look like that from the perspective of the president. His Twitter feed is filled with eruptions about the fraudulence of the Russia investigation. But by appointing the former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the matter, Rosenstein has quieted a crisis that was consuming Trump's presidency.
The storm has been gathering for more than a week. It started when Trump impetuously fired FBI Director James Comey, claiming at first that he did so on the advice of Rosenstein. Then the president changed his story and told NBC News that he was going to fire Comey anyway and that part of this was because the bureau's Russia investigation was dragging on.
The Comey camp soon struck back. First his allies leaked that Trump had asked Comey for his loyalty back in January over dinner. Then in a more damaging story, the New York Times reported on a memo Comey had written to record a conversation in which Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security adviser Trump fired after three weeks on the job.
To state the obvious, all of this made Trump look as if he had something to hide. And it did not take long for Democrats to seize on this theme, mounting a campaign for a special counsel as a condition to approve the next FBI director.
Republicans also began to slide away from the leader of their party. Arizona Sen. John McCain said the Russia scandal was beginning to resemble Watergate. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said the White House was in a "downward spiral." A Republican committee chairman asked the FBI to hand over Comey's notes of meetings with Trump. The Russia probe was consuming Trump's presidency.
Now Rosenstein has offered the president a reset. Trump has a chance to try to focus on foreign and domestic policy. And in this respect the timing is fortunate.
Trump will travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium on his first foreign trip as president, starting Friday. He plans to press Arab allies to form a new alliance against Iran. He hopes to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has a chance to lock down greater spending commitments from NATO allies.
On the domestic front, Trump can now focus on getting his health-care legislation and tax cuts through the Senate.
This is not to say there are not risks. A special counsel has the authority to pursue all kinds of leads, even if they are not about collusion with Russia during the election. As anyone who remembers the 1990s can attest, these investigations can begin by looking into shady land deals in Arkansas and end up documenting a president's sexual dalliances with a White House intern.
But Mueller is trusted by both parties. In his dozen years as FBI director, he avoided major scandals. He also sidestepped political pitfalls that have tarnished the legacy of Comey and another FBI director, Louis Freeh, who spent his years investigating the Clintons.
This may end up offering a chance for redemption to Flynn, whom Trump has defended publicly since firing him.
So far, much is unclear -- not only whether Flynn is innocent or guilty, but even what law he might have broken.
In interviews this week and in Congressional testimony last week, the former deputy attorney general Sally Yates would not say what crime Flynn is alleged to have committed. This did not stop her however from describing in ominous tones the nature of his intercepted conversations last December with Russia's ambassador when he was the incoming national security adviser. She did say that she believed Flynn was compromised and vulnerable to blackmail because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions on that call.
On this point, Flynn and Trump should welcome a fresh set of eyes. This is because Yates's charge of potential blackmail appears on the surface to be risible. After all, Flynn was a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and must have known his calls were being recorded. What's more, we don't yet know whether Flynn was authorized by Trump to discuss sanctions on the calls with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Judging from Trump's campaign promises, this seems likely.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for Barack Obama and was an adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, told me he didn't think the blackmail scenario was plausible. "I think it would be very hard for Russians to use the event of Flynn lying to Pence to blackmail him," he said. "Imagine the conversation: Kislyak calls Flynn and says, 'If you don't lift sanctions, I'm gong to tell the New York Times that you lied to the vice president'?" He added, "That doesn't seem plausible to me, and it makes me wonder if there are more plausible scenarios based on other evidence that those testifying know but didn't share."
When the story about Flynn broke, many news outlets reported that Flynn had violated an obscure law known as the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting foreign policy independent from the government. This law has never been prosecuted, and if it were enforced it would make foreign policy preparations for an incoming administration illegal.
Flynn's legal troubles more likely come from his failure to properly report foreign income. One source close to Flynn told me that the Justice Department had opened an investigation into Flynn after the election in November for failing to register his work on behalf of a Turkish businessman, pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Flynn had instead reported this income through the more lax Lobbying Disclosure Act. After his resignation, Flynn registered as a foreign agent for Turkey.
Flynn also failed to report with the Pentagon his payment in 2015 from Russia's propaganda network, RT, for a speech in Moscow at the network's annual gala. Flynn did brief the Defense Intelligence Agency about that trip before and after he attended the RT gala. The Pentagon also renewed his top-secret security clearance after that trip.
Another potential problem for Flynn could be that he was not truthful with the FBI when its agents interviewed him in January. He agreed to the interview without a lawyer, signaling he did not have anything to hide.
Flynn now appears to be a subject of the FBI's counterintelligence investigation. NBC News reported Wednesday that Flynn and Paul Manafort, a lobbyist who worked for the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime before the 2014 uprising that unseated that government, are subjects of the probe. Manafort was the Trump campaign manager for a little less than two months before he was fired when it emerged that his name was on a secret ledger listing cash payouts on behalf of a pro-Russian party in Ukraine.
So far, Flynn, Manafort and two other Trump associates -- political operative Roger Stone and businessman Carter Page -- have had their reputations stained in news stories quoting anonymous leaks. Mueller now has a chance to evaluate the investigation that has allegedly generated these leaks and pursue the facts where they lead.
The prospect of closure and a legitimate investigation is good for the country. It's also good for Flynn, Manafort, Page and Stone, who have expressed through counsel and in their own words their innocence. And while Trump may not know it, the special counsel has offered his flailing presidency a lifeline.