The American people now have access to most of the Russia collusion investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. As I write this, I wade through 440 "lightly redacted pages."
The good news for all Americans is that the actions of President Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign did not rise, in the eyes of the special counsel, to the proverbial "high crimes and misdemeanors." But the reasoning there is a Department of Justice ruling that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Trump was quick to declare a victory — and this would be strictly in a legal sense — following Attorney General William Barr's memo last March. On Thursday, Trump said, "I'm having a good day, too. It was called no collusion. No obstruction. This hoax, it should never happen again."
But this report is troubling in many ways for the conduct of Trump and his campaign.
In the executive summary, Mueller writes, "First, the Office determined that Russia's two principle interference operations in the 2016 presidential election — the social media campaign and the hacking-and-dumping operations — violated U.S. criminal law."
The problem here is that the Trump administration has not taken steps to prevent similar assaults from occurring again. Its thrust has simply been to tamp down the collusion allegations.
"Second," Mueller continued, "while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges. Among other things, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any campaign officials as an unregistered agent of the Russian government or other Russian principal."
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report said.
In the history of American presidential politics, I cannot remember any campaign, by a Republican or Democrat, which left itself open to assistance from a foreign power, let alone one that has been as antagonistic as Vladimir Putin's Russia. Since taking office, Trump has met alone with Putin at least five times, there are no read-outs available to U.S. officials including National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and Trump's troubling actions toward NATO and our European Union allies align with Putin's goals to destabilize the western alliance.
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The third point: "The investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with the Russian-affiliated election interference." These would include former national security adviser Michael Flynn, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Manafort, who has been convicted on an array of federal crimes.
Lying has become an operating credo of Trump World. So while the conduct did not rise to criminal behavior, this is hardly the kind of behavior Americans should expect or accept of people seeking the highest office in the land.
Further, Mueller explains that Trump's actions and intent "presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred."
On questions of whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice with his firing of FBI director James Comey and tweets aimed at witnesses, Mueller explained, "With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice."
“Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching” a judgment that Trump committed crimes “when no charges can be brought. We recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,”
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the report stated. “At the same time, 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, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
The report is not a clarion refutation of the conduct of Trump and his campaign. What we know now is that their actions didn't rise to criminal conduct, in Trump’s case because a president can’t be indicted. But these activities are still deeply, deeply troubling.
When the entire report reaches Congress, there will be renewed talk of impeachment. It's something I have rejected in the past. Without the high crimes and misdemeanor threshold, it is dangerous for the republic to reach for impeachment. We've been close or at that point three times in American history, in 1868 with President Andrew Johnson, again in 1974 before President Richard Nixon resigned, and in 1999 with President Bill Clinton. If we end up in a pattern of impeaching a president every decade or so, the American experience will crumble.
These troubling scenarios Mueller has outlined and documented need to be addressed at the ballot box in 2020.