As the political world continues to digest the Mueller report, we are entering into a new and especially dangerous phase of the tortured, twisting Russia scandal.
Just as fresh questions are emerging that simply cannot go unanswered — because answers would deepen our understanding of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s revelations, and by extension, of President Trump’s corruption — Trump is increasingly committed to closing off any and all inquiry along those lines.
Meanwhile, Trump is escalating his spinning of a fantasy alt-narrative, in which the only corruption and criminality that we’ve seen have been on the part of the investigators — and he’s threatening action against them.
This is creating an increasingly unstable situation that may essentially force Democrats to choose between total confrontation and total capitulation.
Late Thursday, Trump spoke to Fox News’s Sean Hannity and escalated the lawless rhetoric. He claimed the Mueller investigation was a “coup” and “an attempted overthrow of the United States government.”
Trump then demanded a reopened investigation into Hillary Clinton and the “dirty cops” at the FBI (citing some by name), who he says were all in on the coup attempt, a scandal he called “far bigger than Watergate.” Trump said: “Hopefully the attorney general will do what’s right, and I believe he will.”
One of the worst Mueller revelations centered on Trump’s efforts to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Clinton — thus turning law enforcement loose on his political opponents. Trump has greeted these revelations by converting the report — through a falsified reading of it as total exoneration — into justification for an even more emboldened push into lawlessness, now that he has a more pliant attorney general in William P. Barr.
Yet even as this is happening, reality-based questions about Trump’s corruption and skirting of criminality are growing only more urgent.
More questions emerge
In recent days, reporters and analysts have intensified their scrutiny of multiple individual episodes detailed by Mueller, and under this harsh glare, new unknowns are appearing, like cavities and oral rot revealed in a dental X-ray.
The Post has a new examination of Trump’s efforts to get his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to get Sessions to deliver a speech announcing sharp limits on the scope of the Mueller investigation, to look only at preventing future election interference.
Former prosecutors tell The Post that this is one of the clearest cases of obstruction. Indeed, Mueller concluded there is “substantial evidence” that Trump did this out of corrupt intent, to “prevent further investigative scrutiny” of his and his campaign’s conduct.
Importantly, this came only days after Trump pushed then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to get Mueller fired. Trump subsequently pressed McGahn to lie to cover it up.
As The Post report notes, it could be legally significant that Trump tried to get Sessions to limit the investigation just after trying to get Mueller fired, and that Trump enlisted someone outside government (Lewandowski) to carry out the directive to Sessions, thus operating “outside of official channels.”
There’s another reason this episode is important: By trying to limit the investigation to just future electoral interference, Trump was trying to impede a full accounting of the Russian attack on our political system, separate from whether his campaign criminally conspired with it. That itself is extraordinarily serious misconduct.
As we know, Mueller declined to bring charges due to Justice Department policy but did not exonerate Trump, at which point Barr stepped in and did so. But The Post report digs deeper into why Barr did this. An unnamed DOJ official explains that officials decided corrupt intent couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Lewandowski tale involved an “attenuated chain” of people, making it convoluted.
This raises numerous additional questions about how this decision was really made — questions that more congressional scrutiny of all these episodes could help answer, also deepening our understanding of the episodes themselves.
But Trump is aggressively trying to block this scrutiny. He is likely to exert executive privilege to try to block McGahn’s testimony, which House Democrats have subpoenaed. Congress will likely hear from Barr, but it’s still unclear whether they’ll get the full, unredacted Mueller report. As former prosecutor Renato Mariotti notes, this could hamstring Democrats’ ability to ask questions in hearings that will elicit illuminating answers.
It’s also unclear when Congress will hear from Mueller himself, which, as Mariotti also points out, could shed light on what he thought about the criminality of Trump’s conduct — and on Barr’s decision-making.
Meanwhile, Trump is defying oversight on many other fronts, vowing to refuse “all” subpoenas and rejecting efforts to get his tax returns. As I’ve noted, launching an impeachment inquiry could strengthen the Democrats’ legal hand in compelling cooperation. So Trump may end up forcing Democrats to choose between an inquiry and basically letting Trump neuter them amid endless court battles over one subpoena after another.
But the backdrop here — Trump’s increasingly lawless threats — makes all of this much worse.
A backdrop of lawless threats
As Brian Beutler points out, if Democrats end up drifting aimlessly, it will create a “void that Trump will fill with autocratic ambition” and a debate about “jailing Trump’s critics.” This may be more than theoretical: Remember, Barr has validated Trump’s conspiracy theory that “spying” on Trump’s campaign occurred and has said he will reexamine it.
If Democrats let Trump neuter them, even as Trump escalates his pressure on the Justice Department to investigate his political critics — that is, even as Trump adds to the case for an impeachment inquiry — continuing on the current course will represent something close to total capitulation to Trump’s lawlessness.
If the only alternative is total confrontation, which will Democrats choose?