The other day, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gave an interview to NPR in which he sketched out a troubling scenario concerning the question of whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings will ever see the light of day.
In light of BuzzFeed’s new report, which claims that President Trump directed his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress to obscure his dealings with Russia during the campaign, Schiff’s warning is worth revisiting — and looks even more worrisome.
In the NPR interview, Schiff discussed the fact that in his confirmation hearings, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William P. Barr, sent decidedly mixed signals about how he’ll treat Mueller’s findings. Barr noted that “under the current rules,” the report that the special counsel makes is “supposed to be confidential,” and that the attorney general then has “discretion” about what he reports to Congress about those findings. This happens to be accurate: The attorney general does indeed have great discretion on this front. But, while Barr did say he’d make such a report public, we didn’t get any clear indication of how much he’ll see fit to include in it.
On NPR, Schiff addressed this point. Schiff noted that Barr has strongly suggested that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, and that the proper remedy for holding a president accountable is impeachment. Schiff said:
We, I guess, can expect he’s going to give us a “CliffsNotes” version that he will write himself. This means that the country may never learn about information that does not go into an indictment. And that just is completely unsatisfactory. The country deserves to know what the Russians did in our elections, what role the president played or his campaign associates played. And to have a situation where the nominee for attorney general says you can’t indict a sitting president, you can only impeach one if it’s warranted — but we’re not going to give you the evidence to determine whether impeachment is in order — means we’re not gonna have a rule of law. We’re going to have immunity.
If it’s going to be the position of the incoming attorney general . . . that the public doesn’t get to learn about this, then it will fall upon Congress to share with the American people what happened, and we will do that in several ways. We will do that by trying to compel that report to be provided to Congress, but we’ll also do it by developing the record ourselves and by sharing with the country the product of our investigation.
In other words, Schiff fears a scenario in which every avenue of accountability for Trump is closed off. He cannot be indicted, because a sitting president cannot be indicted, and the only mechanism against him is impeachment. But a full accounting of Mueller’s findings may be kept under wraps, making any drive to impeach him even harder than it already is.
Now think about this new BuzzFeed report. If it is right, Trump suborned perjury, and his longtime fixer has testified about it to Mueller, who has documentary evidence of it. We also know that Cohen has already claimed that Trump directed him to make illegal campaign hush-money payments, about which he has testified to Mueller, alleging what appears to be conspiracy in another crime.
What will the public learn about all of this, however? We don’t know.
Now, it’s very possible, or even likely, that such an effort to keep Mueller’s findings under wraps will fail. House Democrats can subpoena the findings, as Schiff suggests above, and the courts will likely side with disclosure. Or the findings might leak (but this would not be a great outcome, because the process by which they become public should be seen as procedurally legitimate).
Yet, for the time being, Schiff is saying if the public is kept in the dark, a Democratic Congress will have to make up for it. But, while Democrats might be able to do a lot on that front, impeachment and removal seems like a remote possibility at best due to the Republican Senate and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Note that McConnell is protecting Trump’s effort to keep the government shut down by not holding votes on House Democratic bills to reopen it, thus actively shielding Trump from having to veto them. McConnell appears determined to protect the president, and can probably be counted on to shield him from accountability for whatever else comes out.
Schiff’s warning, put starkly, needs to be seen as an admonishment that the roadblocks are all in place to prevent the president from being held accountable — whether legally or politically — for what may turn out to be multiple crimes. And we still don’t know what else Mueller has established.