After Mueller, What’s the Political Fallout?

Jonathan Bernstein
After Mueller, What’s the Political Fallout?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We know more today than we did Friday about President Donald Trump’s actions during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath. Most of what we’ve learned – from Attorney General William Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation – is good for the president and probably for the nation. As far as Mueller could determine, Trump and his associates didn’t mount a criminal conspiracy with Russia to undermine the election. That’s good news. An absence of further indictments isn’t quite the full exoneration that the president is tweeting about, of course. But it’s not nothing. The most feverish conjectures – that perhaps Trump was an active traitor to his country or was being blackmailed by a foreign government – are almost surely flat-out wrong. We also know that Trump never ended up firing Mueller. That, too, counts in his favor, and is contrary to a lot of speculation (often, I’ll note, expressed as certainty).

Politically, it’s fair to say that the chances of impeachment have now faded substantially. Congress would be highly unlikely to move forward with just a count of obstruction if there was no underlying crime with respect to Russia. That said, the crowing from Trump’s camp and from many Republicans is highly inappropriate. For one thing, we don’t actually know what Mueller’s report says. I think it’s very likely that Barr’s summary is technically accurate, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a full reading of the report made the president’s “exoneration” talk sound preposterous. It’s also worth pointing out that an impeachment case still exists. Several of us have argued that the president is surely guilty of at least some “light” obstruction. And Russia aside, Trump had an obvious motive to impede Mueller’s investigation – after all, the probe and its spin-offs have revealed that Trump surrounded himself with crooks. No president would want that on the record. I’m not a lawyer, but as a political scientist I’d argue that the standard for impeachable obstruction is simply different than that for a criminal offense. The president is required to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and Trump has fallen way short just based on the public record.The bottom line is that while we now know more than we did, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. It’s natural that people are forming strong opinions about what Mueller did and didn’t find, and what Barr did or didn’t get right in summarizing it. It’s also the wrong way to go. The correct next step is to get as much of the story on the record as possible. Presumably members of Congress will receive the full Mueller report; they should continue their oversight of the matter and make as much public as they can. If that happens as it should, we’ll then have a much better basis to form conclusions.Meanwhile: We still have a president who has repeatedly attacked legitimate law-enforcement investigations. There are still several active probes of Trump and his associates. Presumably one reason Trump didn’t fire Mueller was that many political elites and members of Congress, including Republicans, warned him against doing so. It wouldn’t hurt for them to repeat those warnings now. In fact, it would be very helpful to the country and perhaps to the president himself.1. Rick Hasen has some questions for Mueller.2. Mikhaila Fogel, Quinta Jurecic, Susan Hennessey, Matthew Kahn and Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare on Barr’s letter.3. Ken White on what we don’t yet know.4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Trump’s limited victory.5. Also here at Bloomberg Opinion, Cass Sunstein on the obstruction question. 6. Neal Katyal on Barr’s letter.7. And a good collection of reactions to all of it from Politico. Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe. Also subscribe to Bloomberg All Access and get much, much more. You’ll receive our unmatched global news coverage and two in-depth daily newsletters, the Bloomberg Open and the Bloomberg Close.

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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