The Democrats were outraged, yes, outraged, I tell you. Prior to the release of edited versions of the Special Counsel’s report on Thursday and before even Attorney General William Barr’s Kavanaughian attempt at spin earlier that morning, Congressional party leadership requested that Robert Mueller appear before the House Judiciary Committee to discuss his findings. Then after Barr finished his shameless defense of President Trump, Democrats were mad about that. The report later emerged, damning as it was with allegations of Trump’s obstruction and his campaign’s clear enjoyment of the Russian election interference on its behalf. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — the two top Democrats in Congress — issued a joint statement that read in part that “the differences are stark between what Attorney General Barr said on obstruction and what Special Counsel Mueller said on obstruction.” My goodness. I’ve heard better rallying cries in a library.
I don’t mean to make too much light of this sound and fury, as this matter could not be more serious. Amid the black lines of its redactions, Mueller’s report details how a hostile foreign nation successfully used the current President of the United States as a vessel to achieve its aims of undermining American democracy, deploying its information warfare and illegal interference schemes to help him get where he is now. In the second volume of his 448-page report, Mueller details at least 10 instances of the president’s obstruction of justice, including Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and his frequent, colicky outbursts about the Special Counsel’s investigation. It all illustrated that Barr plainly lied when he cleared Trump of any such behavior.
“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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” the report reads, adding that it was impossible for the Special Counsel’s office to conclude that no criminal conduct had occurred. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
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To sum up, Mueller knows that something is up. But his office “did not make a traditional prosecution decision about these facts” because, for the breadth of the material included in Mueller’s 448-page report, it is still quite conservative in nature. He adheres to the the Office of Legal Counsel memo that prohibits the prosecution of a sitting president, and states as much in the report. In so many words, Mueller refers the matter both to a court of law, for when Trump is no longer president, whenever that is — and to Congress, which has the constitutional power to conduct a trial and impeach him right now.
But until House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler subpoenaed the full, unredacted report early Friday morning, we hadn’t seen one meaningful Democratic step in that direction. Trump may have had a vulgar Twitter outburst in response to the report, but even he seems less tense about the prospect of impeachment than do Pelosi, Schumer and the rest of Democratic leadership. The House Speaker has not made a comment yet on impeachment since the release of the report, but she told USA Today in March that “you’re wasting your time” pursuing impeachment “unless the evidence is so conclusive that the Republicans will understand,” effectively giving the opposition party veto power over the choice to even pursue the remedy.
Before walking it back somewhat, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer initially was the loudest bedwetter of the Democrats on Capitol Hill when discussing impeachment after the the report’s release. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Hoyer reportedly said to CNN’s Dana Bash. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgement.”
Despite a few outliers, such as freshmen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, most Democrats in Congress have not recognized that the responsibility of impeachment is now at their doorstep, so I fully expect the Democratic Party as a whole will pull its punches.
The pathetic part is that it isn’t because it isn’t “worthwhile.” Impeaching a man who did nothing to stop a foreign attack on American elections on his behalf, then went on to a presidency where he obstructed justice while locking up migrant kids while letting Puerto Rico drown? Yeah, that’s worthwhile. No, they’ll hold off from impeachment primarily to insulate their own power, saving their own jobs and those of their colleagues. The common perception appears to be that an attempt at impeachment — with Republicans holding a slight but firm majority in the Senate — would be doomed to failure and the entire enterprise would hurt the chances of swing-state Democrats seeking re-election. But it is foolish to assume that every impeachment effort would go the way of Newt Gingrich in the Nineties, when a harebrained effort to fire President Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans at the ballot box.
First, Trump being a crook in the White House is not something that is a hard sell for Democratic voters. In a Quinnipiac poll in March, 75% of them believed that Trump had committed a crime since he has been president. But the focus on legal criminality has been too acute as it is. Impeachment doesn’t require a broken law. Yet instead, we see calls for investigations and hearings about this, including the possible testimonies of Mueller, Barr and others before Congress. I recognize that can be significant. However, it is utterly peculiar to hear Democrats like Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) talk about being in the “assembling-of-facts phase” and speaking of the need to “engage in our own report and investigation.” What in the hell for, may I ask?
As my colleague Andy Kroll detailed, the Special Counsel’s investigation took 22 months to complete and involved 19 lawyers, 500 witnesses, 2,800 subpoenas and 500 search warrants. What Congressional investigation is going to equal or top that? What is the likelihood that the House or Senate Democrats, dogged though they may be, will uncover some detail that Mueller’s team missed? By pushing this logic onto their base, Democrats just entered the insulting-their-voters’-intelligence phase of the Trump-Russia saga.
Think about what happened here, about what is described in that report. The country’s elections were attacked by a foreign power. Russia is a vote suppressor. Understanding that, what motivation would this President have to move a finger to stop them? Or the Republican Party, for that matter? The only hope for accountability, perhaps before a court of law after Trump is no longer President, is the Democratic Party that has the power to start impeachment proceedings.
Should Democrats take impeachment off the table, they would let Trump get away with it. It is that elementary. There is no guarantee that he will not repeat the very same encouragement of those Russian efforts, all the while playing dumb so as to avoid legal culpability.
If Democrats were smarter, they would understand that initiating the impeachment of Trump might actually galvanize their base because it would demonstrate that leadership was willing to take the obvious, the logical and the constitutional step once presented with such an abundance of evidence. They would grasp that the visual of their party standing up to a president wedded equally to corruption and to his assortment of bigotries would be appealing to an electorate where black voters are increasingly driving the conversation. Democrats would seize upon the Mueller Report as a flashpoint for organization and recruitment, rather than take the task of prosecution that the Constitution assigned to Congress, hand it off to voters and call that “democracy.” It is up to us as citizens to choose our elected officials, not to do their jobs for them.
All this anger from these early Democratic soundbites, I do wonder where it is going and whether it will ever find a more productive home than a cable news segment or my inbox. Impeaching Barr for performing as Trump’s defense attorney would be a good place to start, perhaps as practice for the bigger task ahead. But even though the Democrats may not have run to replace Trump this way, the Mueller report has arrived. Even in its redacted form, it is enough for them to consider the most drastic of steps.