Christopher Steele, DOJ, Donald Trump, Impeachment, Inspector General, James Comey, Jonathan Turley, Mueller Report, Nancy Pelosi, Obstruction of Justice, Office of Legal Council, Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, Russian Collusion, Steele Dossier, William Barr
The Mueller Report effectively put to rest allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election, despite lingering wails from crestfallen Trump haters. But Trump lovers and haters alike might agree that the report should have settled much more, including whether there was evidence on which a charge of obstruction of justice could be brought against Trump. Robert Mueller demurred from that responsibility as a prosecutor, but he left a few tempting but ultimately dangerous crumbs for those still obsessed with toppling Trump.
Mueller’s statement last Wednesday wavered around the suggestion that Trump might be guilty of obstruction, a connotation colored more by politics than evidence. My conclusions, gleaned from both the report and a few other sources, are the following:
- There was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
- The original allegations were an attempted set-up of Trump. The scheme relied in part on the fraudulent Christopher Steele dossier, which was financed by the Clinton campaign, as well as a series of misrepresentations and suspicious contacts arranged by high-level officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI. That the entire investigation might have been compromised by such a conspiracy was not addressed by Mueller in the report, but we will learn more very soon when the DOJ’s Inspector General issues his findings. The IG will be interviewing Steele himself in the UK before long.
- Mueller probably knew there was no collusion early in the investigation, but he persisted in “investigating” for two years. In my view, that created the appearance of an effort to entrap an angry Trump on obstruction charges.
- Trump reacted to the collusion charges with a kind of raving petulance. Of course, it’s hard to blame him for his anger, and Mueller more-or-less acknowledged that. Trump did and said things that surely sounded intemperate, though some were within his prerogative (e.g., firing James Comey). Certain impulsive statements and actions might have risen to the level of obstruction had he not “changed his mind”, or had he bothered to follow-up on execution by aides. And Trump made statements (not under oath) that we’re intended to influence public opinion and possibly the willingness of certain witnesses to cooperate with investigators, but that sort of intent is hard to prove.
- Of the ten instances of possible obstruction listed by Mueller in his report, two came dangerously close to qualifying as obstruction, two others were more of a stretch, and the rest were readily explained by motives other than an intent to obstruct, as Mueller sometimes indicated in the report.
- Several of the possible obstruction issues were mitigated by Trump’s apparent willingness to cooperate with the investigation, including the provision to Mueller’s office of a huge volume of emails and documents, and by allowing members of the administration to be interviewed, some at great length.
- Jonathan Turley has expressed his dismay at three underhanded actions taken by Mueller, one in the report itself and two in the wake of its delivery to his superiors at the DOJ (Attorney General William Barr and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein). The first was an omission: Mueller chose not to identify grand jury material that had to be redacted before release to the public. This was contrary to instructions and with knowledge that the omission would delay the report’s release to the public and reflect badly on Barr.
- The second action noted by Turley was a letter sent by Mueller to Barr complaining about the “impression” created by Barr’s summary of the report, despite the fact that Barr had invited Mueller to review the summary in advance. The letter also asked Barr to “release uncleared portions of the report”, which Mueller knew was prohibited. This also seems to have been intended to reflect badly on Barr.
- Turley’s third point is Mueller’s legally incoherent statement that “he would have cleared Trump if he could have” but chose not to draw a conclusion. Mueller invoked an opinion from the DOJ’s Office of Legal Council (OLC), which he claimed prohibited the indictment of a sitting president. But over a period of two years, he failed to seek further guidance on the question from the OLC, his superiors, or the Inspector General.
- A more obvious explanation for Mueller’s failure to seek an indictment is that he knew that no grand jury would indict on the evidence as described in the ten instances of possible obstruction he listed in the report.
- Essentially Mueller left the ball in Barr’s court to decide whether to seek an indictment of Trump on obstruction changes, and Barr decided that the evidence did not support it.
- However, the very idea of obstruction is moot, or should be, given the first three points above. And apparently Mueller never intended to seek an indictment on collusion, as he stated again last Wednesday.
- Mueller strayed outside the role of a prosecutor and potentially subverted the cause of justice in stating that he could not exonerate the president of obstruction. There is no such thing as “exoneration” of an accused in U.S. criminal law. Mueller’s role as a prosecutor was to make a determination as to whether he should recommend an indictment against Trump. It was not his role to determine Trump’s guilt and certainly not his innocence, and innocence must always be the presumption.
- The Mueller report could provide Congress with a “roadmap” for impeachment of Trump on charges of obstruction. If House Democrats decide to take that road, it would very likely be a prescription for their electoral suicide.
No matter how aggravating and uncouth you find Trump, and no matter how unwise his policies might prove to be, he was elected fair and square. Nevertheless, his opponents in Congress and on the campaign trail can’t easily give up the impeachment rhetoric without angering their leftist base. But not all congressional Democrats are voicing support for impeachment proceedings, and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is doing her best to manage the division without making a commitment either way. The Senate will never go along with impeachment, of course. Now, a House vote to merely censure Donald Trump is mentioned as a possible “exit-ramp” to compromise that would let the hard-line impeachers down easy. Whatever they do, however, some Democrats might hope to drag out the process in an attempt to inflict maximal damage to Trump’s reelection prospects. And that, too, is probably ill-advised, because people are getting tired of all this.