President Trump’s pick to lead national intelligence has shown open disdain for the intelligence community — particularly the members of it who have been investigating Trump over the past two years.
And nowhere was that more evident than during the turn of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) to question former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last week as Mueller testified to House committees. Ratcliffe accused Mueller of violating the norms of American justice by writing a report that left it open to whether Trump committed a crime by obstructing justice. It was a fiery performance, which happened just days before Trump chose him for the job. Let’s have a look at what Ratcliffe argued and where his argument deviates from Mueller’s interpretation of his own report.
Ratcliffe argued: Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, so why would Mueller need to say in his report that his team couldn’t determine Trump’s innocence? Is Trump guilty until proven innocent? (Mueller’s report says: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”)
Ratcliffe: “Because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone. Everyone is entitled to it, including sitting presidents. And because there is a presumption of innocence, prosecutors never, ever need to conclusively determine it.
But: “This is a unique situation,” Mueller told Ratcliffe. He didn’t get a chance to finish his answer — Ratcliffe cut him off. But we can finish that thought for Mueller: It’s a unique situation because Trump is a sitting president, and long-standing Justice Department policy says a sitting president can’t be indicted. Mueller found that Trump may have committed a crime, and the former special counsel believed it was his duty to say as much. But he couldn’t take the next step and accuse the president of a crime because Trump couldn’t be indicted. So Mueller didn’t decide one way or another because, it’s safe to assume, Mueller didn’t want a situation where Trump could be accused of a crime and wouldn’t get his day in court.
Ratcliffe also took issue with how Mueller described potentially obstructionist behavior in detail and then didn’t draw a conclusion on whether Trump broke the law. Mueller was effectively smearing Trump’s name in the public sphere, Ratcliffe argued.
Ratcliffe: “You wrote 180 pages, 180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided. And respectfully — respectfully, by doing that, you managed to violate every principle in the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra-prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren’t charged.”
But: Mueller wasn’t writing this report for the public. It was a confidential report for the attorney general about what his investigation found, and the investigation found at least 10 instances where Trump may have obstructed justice. It was the attorney general’s decision to release a redacted version to the public.
Ratcliffe argues Mueller didn’t follow his mandate when he said that Trump can’t be declared innocent of obstructing justice.
Ratcliffe: “So respectfully, Director, you didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says, ‘Write a confidential report about decisions reached.’ Nowhere in here does it say, ‘Write a report about decisions that weren’t reached.’ ”
But: Mueller was working closely with two Trump appointees overseeing the probe, former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein and Attorney General William P. Barr. Neither accused Mueller of overstepping his bounds.
Trump has been able to chip away at the credibility of the special counsel’s investigation and the U.S. intelligence community because he has had allies in Congress willing to carry his water. And Ratcliffe has been one of Trump’s top voices from Capitol Hill questioning the integrity of the intelligence community. Now, he could be leading it.