Conventional wisdom suggested that the report from Robert S. Mueller III on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and President Trump’s efforts to to interfere with Mueller’s investigation would be underwhelming. Didn’t we know most of what was going on? The question, by the way, properly credits the press with getting the key facts right. And yet the overwhelming reaction — even from a few brave Republicans — is one of stunned amazement at the extent of President Trump’s duplicity.
The Mueller Report describes, in excruciating detail and with relatively few redactions, a candidate and a campaign aware of the existence of a plot by a hostile foreign government to criminally interfere in the U.S. election for the purpose of supporting that candidate’s side. It describes a candidate and a campaign who welcomed the efforts and delighted in the assistance. It describes a candidate and a campaign who brazenly and serially lied to the American people about the existence of the foreign conspiracy and their contacts with it. And yet, it does not find evidence to support a charge of criminal conspiracy, which requires not just a shared purpose but a meeting of the minds.
The astonishment one experiences while reading the report stems from the brazenness and consistency of Trump’s actions. As Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) put it:
This all has occurred despite blatant efforts by the attorney general to mislead the public about the seriousness of the report’s findings and before Mueller has had a chance to expound on his findings in front of Congress.
Why has the report prompted such a reaction? For one thing, the totality of the information in narrative form reads like a bestseller as it unspools a tale of mendacity. For another, the media did its job, much more credibly and accurately than it did when Attorney General William P. Barr released his four-page letter in March summarizing what he said were the report’s main conclusions. (Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?) Reporters zeroed in on the inconsistencies between Barr’s spin and the report, and on the voluminous evidence of obstruction.
Moreover, new material, specifically relating to Trump and Trump associates’ efforts to obtain Clinton’s emails, paints a damning picture of a campaign willing to use Russian help in recovering Clinton’s emails. ("It wasn’t that Trump was above dealing with Russian hackers to get Hillary’s emails,” writes Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare blog. “He not only called publicly on the Russians to deliver the goods on his opponent, he privately ordered his campaign to seek the material out. He did this knowing himself—clear from his public statements and very clear from the actions of those who acted on his request—that Russia would or might be the source.”)
And finally, we cannot rule out the possibility that Trump’s campaign worked cooperatively with WikiLeaks, a Russian cut-out. Unless Barr’s redactions are removed, we will not know the scope of the Trump-WikiLeaks relationship.
Reactions to the report will be seen in the days and weeks ahead, but one measure of the impact of its findings is Trump’s reaction. He went from triumphalism to rage in a matter of a couple days.
Once Mueller testifies, the House Judiciary Committee must conduct extensive hearings (which may include financial matters that were not the subject of Mueller’s investigation). It must pursue in court, if need be, the complete report, which may hold telling evidence of cooperation between Trump associates and WikiLeaks.
Once that is complete and public opinion settles, House Democrats will be presented with a difficult decision. When Barr’s letter was released, the general sense among both parties was that impeachment was off the table and the 2020 election would be the way to resolve the issue of presidential wrongdoing. No more. Impeachment is not politically or constitutionally out of the question. Not by a long shot. “In the face of this evidence, for Congress to not even consider impeachment as a matter of serious inquiry is to declare that the legislature is not interested in its carrying out its institutional obligations as a coordinate branch of government,” Hennessey and Jurecic note.
There are two ways this plays out after Mueller testifies, the House obtains the complete Mueller report and conducts comprehensive hearings as, we think, it would be obligated to do.
First, public opinion may harden in opposition to the president and the calls for impeachment may grow. While elected Republicans willing to impeach or find Trump guilty in the Senate are few, impeachment may come to be seen as the appropriate remedy. The Senate’s refusal to convict would then be seen not as vindication of Trump but as an act of blatant partisanship. Impeachment without removal thereby becomes a viable course of action.
Alternatively, the battle lines may harden among voters, and no Republicans in the House and Senate are willing to fulfill their obligation to impeach and convict. An impeachment on strictly partisan lines without a supermajority in the country in favor of impeachment would, in our view, seem unwise. While not specified in the Constitution, censure then becomes a possible response and an action in which some Republicans might join.
Laurence Tribe makes a compelling case that even if removal is virtually impossible, “it seems to me an abdication of constitutional responsibility for the House of Representatives to do anything less than impeach him and put him on trial in the Senate, whatever the predicted result.” Tribe advises, “Make every member of the House and Senate stand up and be counted. Who among them take their fidelity to the nation and its Constitution and laws seriously enough to risk losing their perks as senators or representatives? Who among them should be retired by the voters as sellouts?”
There is no easy answer here. Key will be Mueller’s testimony and the House hearings in total as well as the cases spun off from Mueller’s inquiry. All of this would not be possible, of course, if not for the stunning and comprehensive report Mueller provided the nation.