President Trump's aides reportedly have begun looking for evidence that the legal team assembled by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has conflicts of interest. As part of their search, aides are looking at the legal team’s political donations. Based on evidence that at least seven of the 15 lawyers have previously given money to Democrats, it appears, the administration is gearing up to make the argument that Mueller’s team is biased and thus unable to reach impartial legal conclusions.
But it’s hardly remarkable that most of Mueller’s investigators appear to be Democratic donors. It would be shocking if they weren’t.
Justice Department rules prohibit taking political affiliation into account when filling career positions at the agency, including those in the special counsel’s office. These rules are designed to ensure that legal investigations aren’t partisan affairs. When the rules were ignored by George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, it was a national scandal.
If Mueller followed the law and hired lawyers without taking their political ideology into account, the odds are that he would hire mostly Democrats. The reason for this is simple: Lawyers tend to be liberal. Our research has shown that 68% of lawyers who have made any political contributions have given more money to Democrats than to Republicans.
This liberal slant is even more extreme among elite lawyers. Of attorneys who graduated from the country’s most selective law schools — the “Top 14,” as they’re often called — 76% of those who make political contributions have given more money to Democrats than to Republicans.
Any employers, therefore, who seek to hire the most qualified attorneys, would typically end up hiring many liberals. Mueller presumably falls into that category.
So does President Trump. The veteran Washington lawyer he hired to represent him in the Russia investigations, Ty Cobb, has donated thousands to Democrats over the past decade, including to Sen. Al Franken, President Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Consider the law clerks of the U.S. Supreme Court. Every year, the Supreme Court justices all hire four young lawyers to work as their clerks. Since 1960, 70% of the clerks who have made political donations have leaned to the left. And this is despite the fact that — unlike Mueller — Supreme Court justices can and do take ideology into account when hiring clerks. They simply end up hiring a lot of Democratic donors because the justices seek out the country’s most exceptional young lawyers.
That members of Mueller’s team may have given money to Democrats isn’t proof that they are biased against President Trump, either. Many people donate to candidates for a variety of reasons and are still capable of conducting their work fairly.
Plenty of key members of the Trump administration — Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, even Trump himself — have given to Democrats, including to Hillary Clinton. Trump clearly doesn’t feel that such donations should bar members of his family from working in the White House. It seems only fair that the same standard be applied to Justice Department employees.
It would be perfectly reasonable to make the case that the nation’s elite lawyers should include more conservatives. Indeed, in a recent paper, we showed that the legal academy is even more liberal than the legal profession and argued that the ideological imbalance could be a problem.
But when it comes to whether Mueller’s investigation is biased, this is beside the point. According to the Justice Department’s own rules, campaign donations do not create a conflict of interest. Just as importantly, political contributions to Democrats are exactly what we would expect from a group of top-tier lawyers.
Adam Bonica is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Adam Chilton is a professor at University of Chicago Law School. Maya Sen is a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.