April 21, 2019

CHANG | Don’t Ever Forget the Mueller Report

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For decades to come, we’ll remember April 18 as a day of infamy: the day that the Mueller report dropped. The Mueller report will be memorialized for being as important to American political history as Watergate and as shocking as the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal.

Just kidding. In a few months — and definitely by the 2020 election — I doubt anyone is going to care. But it shouldn’t be that way.

The Mueller report is 448 pages of detailed information about the Trump administration that’s been nearly two years in the making. It’s organized into two volumes — the first on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the second on the possibility that President Trump obstructed justice.

In terms of election interference, special counsel Mueller & Co. concluded that the Trump campaign did not participate in a criminal conspiracy, which is a legal term of art that requires a “tacit or express” agreement between the “Trump campaign and Russian government.”

But, Mueller did lay out several instances of sketchy behavior by either members of the Trump campaign or the Russians. For example, the campaign’s receptiveness to the Kremlin by way of providing polling information and cooperating on Ukraine policy to be implemented post-election weren’t exactly kosher. While Attorney General William Barr’s comment during a pre-release press conference that “no collusion” had occurred was technically correct, the report demonstrates that campaign leaders and the Russian government worked together to increase Trump’s election chances. Worse, Trump knew about this coordination.

In the second volume, Mueller concludes that the president did not obstruct justice, primarily because of a long-standing White House Office of Legal Counsel and Department of Justice opinion that sitting presidents cannot be indicted for criminal behavior. As Miriam Baer, law professor and former Assistant Attorney for the Southern District of New York writes, the “facts are muddy.”

Mueller presents a pattern that all but fulfills the standards for obstruction of justice. He identifies 10 relevant events, including conduct involving former FBI director James Comey, the Justice Department’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s testimony, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Trump-Russia investigation and the president’s attempts to remove Mueller.

However, many legal professionals are frustrated by the lack of a conclusion from Mueller. For example, Paul Rosenzweig, who sat on the staff of the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton, wrote “Mueller flinched” while Harvard Law School emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz explains, “Special counsels are supposed to decide, not make debating points for each side.” Two final notes about the content of the report: 14 cases were referred to different law enforcement officials, meaning that more information may be released, and the report holds 954 redactions (around 10 percent), including intelligence materials, grand jury materials and details germane to ongoing investigations.

The political effect of the report has been primarily partisan, with Republicans and the president arguing that the report proves “total and complete exoneration” (hint: It does not). In the last few days, several Republicans have published strongly worded defenses of the president in ways that suggest they did not consider the full text and weight of the Mueller report. Notably, though, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) broke from the party to express disappointment, disapproval or disgust.

Democrats are taking a measured approach, with House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) subpoenaing the complete report by May 1 and asking both Barr and Mueller to testify in Congress in the next few weeks. Regardless, no Democratic leaders are calling for impeachment just yet, although the Mueller report likely makes for a stronger legal case.

As I remarked in a previous column, Democrats have to consider the “unintended consequences” of impeachment. No amount of damning evidence will ensure that the Republican-controlled Senate removes the president or that Trump supporters understand the Mueller report as anything but a failed witch-hunt. By buying into impeachment, “we reinforce his Teflon-ness,” says Jennifer Palmieri, a former senior aide to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Yet the implications of the report are incredibly important, especially for the upcoming election. I don’t care about your party or what your politics are. You need to read the Mueller report as a revelatory insight into the messiness of the 45th presidential administration. At the very least, the Mueller report conveys that the President — along with his campaign and administration officials — committed inappropriate acts that threaten the foundations of the Constitution. Whether you believe in liberal democracy or not, refusing politics in this instance could allow elected officials to get away with anything.

If the president can “[slump] back in his chair and [say], ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked,’” about the Mueller investigation and spin it as his victory, it will be our fault. Even as many of us Cornellians get lost in the ups and downs of college life, we shouldn’t forget to respond to serious and timely political issues.

Maybe we will forget Zeta Beta Tau’s “pig roast” contest, or Letitia Chai ’18, who presented her college scholar senior thesis in her underwear to protest a professor’s comments on her clothes. We’ve definitely forgotten Mitch McBride ’17, who worked to make the financial aid process more transparent by handing over a series of working documents that indicated the administration wanted to increase students’ debt burden. But we can’t keep doing this if we want to avoid a slippery slope into the implosion of responsible governance.

Don’t ever forget about the Mueller report.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.