Here's where I stand on major issues in the investigation of Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. 2016 presidential election and related issues concerning President Trump.
The Investigation Isn't a Witch Hunt
President Trump and his allies have relentlessly labeled the Russia investigation a "witch hunt."
Witches are, of course, not real. And, historical events such as the Salem witch trials persecuted innocent people in the pursuit of preordained convictions. Calling the investigation a "witch hunt" implies that it isn't finding clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing. That is simply not true. The crimes are quite real here.
As of this writing, Special Counsel Robert Mueller "has publicly initiated criminal proceedings against 32 people—five U.S. nationals, 26 Russian nationals, and one Dutch national—and three Russian organizations." (Wikipedia)
The Americans include:
- Michael Flynn, the president's former National Security Advisor, who pled guilty to making false statements involving communication with Russia.
- George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the president's campaign, who pled guilty to making false statements involving communication with Russia.
- Paul Manafort, the president's former Campaign Chairman, who was found guilty of eight counts of financial fraud and is being retried on another 10 counts.
- Rick Gates, Manafort's deputy on the president's campaign, who pled guilty to conspiracy against the United States and to making false statements as part of a plea deal to avoid further charges.
Mueller's team also referred information to federal prosecutors about the president's lawyer, Michael Cohen, making "hush money" payments to the president's mistresses. This led to Cohen pleading guilty to eight counts of campaign finance violations, tax fraud, and bank fraud. (Wikipedia)
The president's "witch hunt" and "no collusion" mantras are perhaps making two points:
- The investigation has not implicated the president directly in Russia's efforts to interfere with the election. (His role in Cohen's unreported "hush money" payments likely violated campaign finance law. But, I see that as a campaign finance matter and it has no bearing on the Russia investigation.)
- The president's associates have been charged with lying to investigators or financial fraud, but they have not been charged with colluding with Russia to interfere with the election.
Those two points are true. But, the goals of the Russia investigation were never to get Trump, get his staff, or implicate them in Russian collusion. The goals were to find out how Russia interfered with the election, to find out who helped Russia, and to bring those people to justice.
We now know that 26 Russians and three Russian organizations interfered with the election. To a degree, we know how they did it. We also know Flynn and Papadopoulos had interactions with Russia that were unethical and concerning. Those are real, meaningful results from the investigation. This is not a "witch hunt."
We will see where Mueller goes from here. He and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein haven't ended the investigation. This implies they believe there is more to be discovered related to Russian interference in the election.
President Trump has talked of his disdain for the "flipping" of witnesses. That may be among Mueller's next moves. If Manafort, Cohen, or others have information useful to the Russia investigation, they may trade that information for lighter sentences or future plea deals.
Mueller's investigation is producing meaningful results in a professional, non-partisan way. It should be allowed to continue.
The Investigation Hasn't Gone On for Too Long
President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and other allies of the President have beat the drum for months that the investigation has gone on for too long and should end. This pressure intensified at the one-year anniversary of Mueller's appointment in May and has been repeated each time Mueller makes public progress with the investigation.
As many analyses have shown, the investigations of special counsels and the independent counsels before them have generally lasted much longer than a year. CNN reports that, if the unusually long probe of Henry Cisneros is excluded, the average investigation has taken about 911 days from appointment to the final report. The median is shorter at 668 days.
Regardless of how long prior investigations have taken, Mueller should be given the time to do his job well. Getting to the truth of exactly what happened during the 2016 election is what really matters here.
Sessions Shouldn't Be Fired Until the Investigation Ends
President Trump hasn't been happy with Attorney General Jeff Sessions from almost the start of the administration. The president wanted a partisan who would protect him and his interests at the Justice Department. Instead, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation due to a conflict arising from his prior interaction with Russia. That gave Rosenstein the Russia ball, and he appointed Mueller as special counsel.
President Trump has made it clear that he wants Sessions gone. Conveniently, this would give him the chance to appoint a new AG more to his liking. That new AG would then supervise Mueller instead of Rosenstein. And, that new AG could hobble the Russia investigation or fire Mueller if they wished to. (That new AG might also investigate Hillary Clinton and other Trump enemies. But, that's for another post.)
I'm no Sessions fan. It's been scary to watch how effective he's been at achieving his far-right agenda at Justice. But, recusing himself from the Russia investigation was a principled move. That recusal has given Mueller the political breathing room to do his investigative work.
For months, Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham made it clear to President Trump that firing Sessions was not acceptable until Mueller concludes his investigation. Now, Graham has shifted his position to indicate that he supports Sessions' ouster after the mid-term elections. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley seems onboard with this as well.
Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and Graham sits on it. The power of the Republican base would appear to Trump all. This does not bode well for Sessions or the Mueller investigation. And, it moves us closer to the banana republic that Democratic Senator Chris Murphy and others worry we're becoming.
Mueller needs continued political air cover to finish his vital work. President Trump should not fire Sessions until the Russia investigation is concluded. And, if President Trump appears to be trying to control or stop the Russia investigation in the future, that should be deemed an impeachable offense by the House.
There Aren't Grounds for Impeachment at This Stage
All of that said, calls for the impeachment of President Trump are not justified at this stage. He hasn't thus far moved against Sessions, Rosenstein, or Mueller. And, we haven't seen evidence that would justify his impeachment.
It appears the president may have committed campaign finance violations around the unreported "hush money" to his mistresses. But, that hardly qualifies as "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," which are the reasons the Constitution says a president can be impeached.
I doubt that covering up consensual affairs was the sort of Bribery the Framers had in mind. Donald Trump wasn't president when the payments to his mistresses were made, and the money came from Michael Cohen and later Trump himself. No government funds were used, and no Official Acts resulted from the payments. No impeachable offense appears to have occurred. At most, this seems like campaign finance reporting violations that should be addressed by the Federal Election Commission with fines.
Just as the House shouldn't have impeached President Bill Clinton for trying to cover up a consensual affair, it shouldn't impeach President Trump for somewhat similar behavior. Both men acted in immoral ways. But, neither of them engaged in "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" based on what we know.
We need to see where Mueller's investigation goes. It may be that continued digging and the "flipping" of witnesses implicate President Trump or his associates in illegal activity regarding Russia. But, Mueller may find nothing of the sort. We simply need to let the process work.
Main blog post image by Kayla Velasquez.