Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller delivered the most damaging indictment of a current president’s conduct since Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski established a “road map” for the impeachment of former President Richard Nixon in 1974. No, Mueller did not find evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” to charge President Donald Trump and his operatives with engaging in a criminal conspiracy to rig the 2016 general election — a finding that would have required not only a shared purpose but also a meeting of the minds. His report did find, however, that Russia interfered massively with our supposedly free and fair election and that the Trump campaign welcomed and cheered those hostile acts. Mueller’s inquiry also found oodles of evidence indicating that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice — conduct calculated to hamstring a federal investigation. Now, the U.S. Congress has the solemn duty to reckon with the evidence that has been put on the table.
Through a series of indictments and outstanding investigative reporting long before Mueller’s (partially redacted) report became public, we already knew a great deal about the Kremlin’s efforts to elect Trump. We learned that the two camps were in regular contact, with at least 28 meetings and 100 contacts between the Trump campaign and transition team and Russian operatives. We also knew that many of the president’s closest confidants and associates, including his former national security adviser, campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal lawyer and “fixer” and foreign policy campaign adviser, were convicted of or pleaded guilty to a range of crimes.
The sworn testimony that Mueller and his team compiled from insiders corroborated all of the above. It also resoundingly disproved Trump’s rallying cries of “no collusion.” Collusion, as Mueller’s report takes pains to emphasize, has no legal definition and is not a federal crime — Mueller rather sought evidence of criminal conspiracy, or coordination with Russia through some active or passive agreement. He did find a wide range of conduct that included Trump encouraging the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s email servers (which Russians carried out just hours after Trump suggested they do so), campaign manager Paul Manafort regularly providing polling information to a Russian national and Donald Trump, Jr. arranging a meeting with the express purpose of obtaining “dirt” on Clinton. In sum, Mueller found the Trump team “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” The fact that these efforts by the Trump campaign did not technically qualify as criminal activity does not mean that the president did not actively threaten the integrity of the American legal and political system.
In addition, the president’s efforts to obstruct justice were comprehensive and wide-ranging. Mueller investigated a total of 10 specific episodes for obstruction of justice, and according to Lawfare (a law and national security blog produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution), several of those activities met all of the statutory elements of criminal obstruction of justice: an obstructive act, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding and corrupt intent. Notably, Trump pressured former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “un-recuse” himself from the probe, dismissed former FBI director James Comey ostensibly due to the investigation and tried to force White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller.
Recall that Attorney General William Barr wrote in his four-page summary of the report that Mueller declined to pass judgment on whether the president obstructed justice because evidence existed on both sides of the case. His letter failed to mention that Mueller’s decision critically rested upon the Department of Justice policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted and that the special counsel knew from the get-go that he would not accuse the president of obstruction of justice. If the evidence had warranted giving the president a clean bill of health, the special counsel would have said so — the report explicitly noted that if Mueller and his team “had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” The fact that Mueller and his team did not so state indicates that the president was decidedly not exonerated. Now that the full report has been released, we know that Barr’s letter was the work of a deeply misleading spin doctor. The facts paint Trump as a deeply unethical man with little regard for the rule of law.
Now, the House of Representatives must decide what to do with these facts. If it wants to confront the substance of the report, it will introduce a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry. An impeachment battle will never be politically risk-free, but it should be a risk our members of Congress should be willing to take — even a formal censure would not hold accountable a president who cannot be shamed. The special counsel did not have a pathway to hold Trump to justice, but Congress does. I hope they take it, for no other action can fully acknowledge the seriousness of this moment. What if the next president obstructs justice only six times?