Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Mueller Report

Photo: Robert Mueller/Getty Images

Yesterday, at long last, after almost two years of investigations, the Mueller Report was finally released. Although the Mueller investigation and his report are now done, the fallout of the Russian election meddling and President Trump's suspect behavior continues. Why? Put simply, while Trump denies it, the report, while not finding evidence of criminal collusion, or conspiracy, does make a strong case for obstruction of justice. In other words, did Trump, or his surrogates, try to engage in a cover-up? Did he (or they, at his request) hinder the ongoing investigation? The verdict? The report explicitly states that it does not exonerate trump for such misdeeds. Based on the report, The Washington Post has highlighted 10 (10!) instances of possible obstruction of justice. Despite all of that, Robert Mueller and his team have left it to Congress to sort out whether Trump obstructed justice and whether to punish Trump if such acts took place.

Trump argues that if no collusion took place, then there’s nothing to obstruct. His political opponents disagree, and they do have a case to be made. Sure, Mueller didn’t find strong enough evidence of obstruction to take a position, but that’s a separate matter from how Trump acted in response to the investigations. He still could have tried to scuttle the investigations—either by getting rid of Mueller and his team or making life difficult for them. And there’s evidence, if you’ve read the report, that Trump attempted to do both. Frankly, probably the only reason Trump didn’t overtly obstruct justice is because some of his staff, like Don McGahn and Rob Porter, declined to do things they knew were extraordinarily shady if not outright illegal. 

Of course, all of this begs a question: Why would Trump attempt to obstruct justice? That’s long been a puzzle, based on a list of things we’ve already known (firings of James Comey and Jeff Sessions, badmouthing Mueller and his team of “angry democrats,” constantly deflecting attention to “Hillary’s emails,” etc.) Logically, it seems that either Trump mistakenly believed he acted illegally, or actually did act illegally and Mueller simply couldn’t pin down his “crimes and misdemeanors.” Whichever the case, Trump believed his presidency was in big trouble. After all, after getting word of the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Trump reportedly said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked.” This wasn't a guy who thought he was innocent, no matter how much he declared otherwise on Twitter, at his rallies, and elsewhere.

Because the metaphorical ball has been tossed to Congress, the proceedings are no longer a legal matter and are now a political one. Which means that, because of the deeply polarized electorate and legislature, deciphering the meaning of the report is a partisan affair. Democrats are lining up to pillory trump; the Republicans are largely standing behind Trump, seemingly content with Trump’s labeling of the multi-year investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Democrats now have a decision to make. Do they want to go forward and make the case for impeachment—or not? This question is complicated by the upcoming presidential election in November 2020. A few Democratic candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke, have admitted that they’ve only received a few questions about the investigations on the campaign trail, a sign the democratic base is less interested in this sordid affair than in basic democratic concerns (health care, income inequality, climate change, etc.). Moreover, there is no evidence that the Senate would vote to convict trump on impeachment, so impeachment proceedings, in the end, would be mostly symbolic. It would be a gut move to mollify the democratic base.

Additionally, most Americans, at least to this point, don’t support impeaching Trump. Yes, the political left does, but most Americans don't. So going the impeachment route carries big risks. Specifically, an electorate that's tired of investigations could punish the Democrats for overreaching in their efforts to remove Trump from office. And that could result in the Democrats losing the upcoming presidential race and also the House, which they just won in 2018.

My educated guess is that the Democrats won’t move en masse on impeachment. We will probably see a few push for it, and already Elizabeth Warren has called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings. But it's a very risky move. Mostly, they will use the Mueller report as talking points to hammer Trump and the Republicans and to galvanize their base. In the meantime, though, political polarization will continue to widen and harden in the US. Trump won't take his "win" and let the rest go. He will press the case that he was unfairly targeted by crazed Democrats who seek to destroy Trump and all of MAGA's supposed achievements. And that, in turn, only gins up further Trump's rabid base of supporters. And with the 2020 elections around the corner, this makes for a combustible, toxic political brew. Overall, I fully expect turbulent political times in the US will remain a fixture and possibly worsen as we head toward November 2020.