The criminal investigations that special counsel Robert Mueller led for the Department of Justice for the last two years were not about Donald Trump or Donald Jr. or Michael Cohen or George Papadopoulos or Michael Flynn or any of the many other members of the Trump gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
Lest we forget, the investigations were about Russia. They were always about Russia.
Mueller underscored this elemental truth in a brief televised statement last week, his only public appearance in an official capacity during 25 months of service.
“The appointment order directed the office [of special counsel] to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” he said. “This included investigating any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”
Finishing his remarks a scant nine minutes later, the former director of the FBI seemed frustrated as he returned to the essence of his work as special counsel.
“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” Mueller said. “And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Let me put a sharper point on it: Coordinated military and civilian elements of the government of the Russian Federation, authorized by President Vladimir Putin, carried out an extended, sophisticated, multiprong attack on the American presidential election campaign of 2016.
Their weapons for this act of information warfare were the internet, computers, invasive spyware programs, paid hackers, online trolls, digital robots, phony identities and social media accounts created to promote and share false and/or misleading information about American candidates; news-like websites used to expose strategic, planning and just plain negative material stolen from candidates’ campaigns; and much more.
Russians pretending to be Americans also bought online political advertising that reached at least 126 million Americans through Facebook alone, the company belatedly admitted.
The declassified version of a joint intelligence assessment conducted by the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency, released Jan. 6, 2017, concluded with high confidence that the Russians’ broad goal was to magnify conflict and disunity in American society and undermine Americans’ confidence in our democratic systems, including honest and fair elections.
The assessment also concluded that as the election campaign continued through 2016, Russian leadership decided they would be better off if Republican Trump won the American election, rather than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. To that end, the Russians began focusing more on boosting his candidacy and damaging hers. This included, for example, releasing distorted information about Clinton timed to coincide with televised debates watched by tens of millions of American viewers.
The FBI opened its investigation into Russia’s information warfare against the United States at the end of July 2016. Mueller, a former director of the FBI under both Republican and Democratic presidents, was appointed to take over the investigation in May 2017 after Trump fired the person who had been running it, FBI Director James Comey.
Mueller’s assignment was to put together a team of experienced investigators and prosecutors to search for and accumulate evidence of the Russian attack. This included the identity of people and institutions that planned and carried it out, the laws that were broken, and the cases that would support criminal charges and vigorous prosecutions against the perpetrators.
In the end, Mueller brought about 200 charges of criminal conduct against 37 people who either pleaded guilty or were indicted, with their cases still pending. He referred another 20 or so cases to other criminal justice jurisdictions.
Mueller’s mandate as special counsel also required him to find out whether any Trump campaign officials or operatives conspired with the Russians in their attacks on the 2016 American election campaign. Investigators examined at least 140 contacts dating back to early 2016 among Russians or intermediaries repre senting Russians and Trump and about 18 campaign associates. Mueller concluded that the evidence compiled regarding these contacts was insufficient to support compelling cases of criminal conspiracy.
The final crucial element of Mueller’s investigation was determining whether Trump and/or his associates were attempting to obstruct and interfere with the special counsel’s probe of the Russian cyberattacks on America.
A disputed Justice Department policy states that a sitting president cannot be indicted, so Mueller said he ruled out that possibility from the beginning. But he said that the same policy clearly permits the investigation of a sitting president to gather and preserve evidence for possible use later or for use against obstructers of justice who aren’t sitting presidents.
And Mueller emphasized the gravity of the crime:
“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
In pursuing this aspect of the investigation, Mueller’s team could start its work from, among other things, a clear and copious record of Trump’s own questionable actions and statements. He dismissed, without evidence, the U.S. intelligence findings about Russian cyberwarfare. He demeaned the honesty and competence of the members of the U.S. intelligence community. He casually and repeatedly smeared the people and work of the Justice Department, while expressing faith in Vladimir Putin’s denials of any Russian misconduct.
Lacking the ability to indict, Mueller’s report does not express an opinion, legal or otherwise, about whether the evidence indicates Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice. But it’s worth pointing out that the report’s section on conspiracy does acknowledge that the evidence was insufficient to support bringing criminal charges. Mueller and his team did not say the same about the evidence of obstruction.
The report does describe in detail, however, several incidents in which Trump seems to engage in obstructive behavior. (See Volume II of the Mueller Report as redacted, Pages 15 through 158.)
Those descriptions were sufficient for more than 1,000 former federal prosecutors who served Republican and Democratic presidents. They all signed a statement declaring that Trump’s actions “would result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice” for anyone not covered by the Justice Department’s no-indictment policy for sitting presidents.
In his brief comments last week, Mueller said that “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
That process is impeachment.
Mueller never uttered that word, but he did express a strong preference to not testify before any congressional committees. But would he really say no if House Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi create a special committee to begin evaluating evidence of possible impeachable offenses?
Besides, Mueller’s been a by-the-rules guy his whole life. If he’s subpoenaed, he will come.