• Ryan O'Connell

Living in a Post-Mueller World

March 28, 2019

So Donald Trump got away with it, after all.

The big surprise was that Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not reach a conclusion about whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice. This issue, not the alleged collusion with Russians during the presidential campaign, constituted the real threat to Trump’s presidency.

Trump has often wailed about the “witch hunt” and how unfair it was that he was being investigated. It’s important to remember what triggered Mueller’s inquiry: Trump’s brazen flouting of post-Watergate political rules that protected the independence of the FBI and the Justice Department from political influence.

Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI, because Comey refused his request to “go easy” on Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, and otherwise slow down the investigation into Russian interference with the U.S. election. (Flynn eventually entered into a plea bargain admitting that he had lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.)

The next day, Trump met with Russian officials in the Oval Office and disparaged Comey, saying:

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Trump also referred to “this Russia thing” as one of his motives for terminating Comey, in an interview on national TV with Lester Holt.

The abrupt firing of Comey, and Trump’s comments about it, shocked the Washington establishment. For decades FBI directors had served 10-year terms, to help insulate them from political pressure. The resulting outcry led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.

No, Mr. President, No Exoneration

Mueller did not exonerate Trump on the question of obstructing justice. Instead, Mueller referred to “difficult questions of law and fact”, as Attorney General William Barr noted in his letter summarizing the investigation’s results. Barr indicated that he intended to release most of Mueller’s report in due course; hopefully the public will soon be able to read about those “difficult questions” and reach their own conclusions.

After all, Trump has exulted about the Mueller report, calling it “wonderful”, so presumably he won’t object to its release….right?

Special Counsel Robert Mueller

In any event, Mueller’s report may still be quite damaging to Trump, if it lays out sordid details about his attempts to stop the Russian investigation. Mueller may have only decided that he did not have enough evidence of Trump’s intent to obstruct justice. In criminal proceedings, it is generally necessary to show the intent to commit a crime and to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Remember that Trump refused to be interviewed by Mueller’s staff, who had to rely on carefully drafted, written responses to questions. This may have been a critical gap in the investigation (which raises the question why Mueller did not issue a subpoena compelling Trump to testify).

In other words, Mueller may have amassed plenty of evidence that Trump walked like a duck and talked like a duck….but he could not prove that Trump thought like a duck.

If the Democrats controlled the Senate as well as the House, they would have ample grounds for impeaching Trump, in my opinion, including his numerous attempts to obstruct justice. But the bar for criminal proceedings is higher. Freeing Democrats from the Impeachment Fantasy

Ironically, this is the silver lining to Mueller’s decision: he has effectively taken impeachment off the table.

Pursuing impeachment proceedings would have been at best a high-risk strategy for the Democrats and at worst an exercise in futility, since Republicans control the Senate. Impeachment is and should be a last resort. Congress has only resorted to this process twice, and the Republicans damaged themselves by trying to impeach Bill Clinton. The best way to punish Trump is defeating him at the polls.

Now, Nancy Pelosi and the other adults in the Democratic Party can shut down any further talk of impeaching Trump. They have essentially told the troops in Congress to ignore Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s impeachment petition. That’s an astute move, politically. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is toeing the party line on this front.

The Democrats can focus their time and energy on issues most voters care about, such as health care, infrastructure projects and protecting the environment. On Tuesday, Pelosi did just that, introducing proposals to improve the Affordable Care Act, to remedy some of its shortcomings…and to present an alternative to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All, pie-in-the-sky plan.

Health Care Could Drive the Elections…Again So this is no time for Democrats to despair. Furthermore, the Trump administration has just bestowed upon the Democrats a gift that could help them considerably in the 2020 elections. This week, the Justice Department joined a lawsuit brought by several states to nullify the Affordable Care Act. This move caught Republican leaders completely by surprise, and it should put many of their candidates on the defensive in 2020.

Trump has claimed, once again, that he will come up with a superior health plan. However, this time he won’t be able to fool his party leaders or the public on this issue. Trump stunned his Republican colleagues with his utter ignorance of health care issues, when they tried to repeal the ACA in 2017, and his incompetence helped to torpedo that effort.

Consequently, Trump has little street cred on health care issues, and it is about to drop to zero. Trump has promised voters, repeatedly, that he would keep intact the protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But his Justice Department’s lawsuit would throw those safeguards out the window.

About 21 million Americans could lose their insurance coverage if the ACA were repealed or nullified. That’s a lot of voters. Furthermore, about two million children are covered by their parents’ employer plans, thanks to Obamacare. Taking away these insurance policies won’t be popular with the public.

Republicans may also dig themselves in deeper. They have suddenly discovered that …deficits matter!! Some Republican leaders have started to talk about the urgent need to cut Social Security and Medicare expenditures, to reduce the red ink caused by the profligate tax cuts that they enacted. That’s likely to be a tough sell.

The tax cuts have been a dud with most Americans, since they benefited only a tiny slice of the electorate. Even worse for Trump, his own advisers have conceded that the tax cuts have not led to a large increase in corporate investment or a major change in the U.S.’s long-term growth rate. The cuts did spur a massive round of share buy-backs, which sparked a rally in the stock market. But most Americans don’t own much stock, unfortunately, so that didn’t help them, either.

Let Trump and his minions try to gut health care and slash Social Security and Medicare benefits. For Democrats, winning in 2020 would be the best revenge.

The Wall Street Democrat

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