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Opinion | Ben Clements and Ron Fein

Mueller time is over. Now it’s impeachment time

The White House.
The White House.(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

At long last, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has submitted his report to the attorney general. What does that mean for Congress — and the question of impeachment?

For 21 months, leaders of both parties have found one consistent area of agreement: the ongoing Mueller investigation provided a convenient excuse to duck, deflect, and delay discussion of impeachment. With each new revelation of impeachable conduct, the bipartisan response from Congress has been that impeachment talk was “premature” until the Mueller report was complete.

That excuse is now gone. The question is whether the House of Representatives will begin an impeachment investigation, or manufacture a new excuse.

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There has never been a principled reason to wait. Even aside from the matters covered by Mueller investigation, there have long been ample independent grounds for an impeachment investigation in parallel with the Mueller probe. For example, since the day he took office, Trump has been lining his pockets with federal taxpayer dollars and unconstitutional payoffs from dubious foreign governments. The Framers specifically named that an impeachable offense. He has repeatedly directed federal agencies to target his political “enemies list.” That was part of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. And, appearing under the stage name of “Individual-1,” Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments to influence the 2016 election — a federal crime for which Cohen will report to prison in less than two months.

The Mueller report is not expected to address these. Not because they didn’t happen, or are not impeachable offenses, but because they were not part of Mueller’s limited scope of appointment. He was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election (including the role of the Trump team) and any matters that arose from it, such as obstruction of justice.

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And even in those two subject areas, Mueller’s conclusions about criminal liability are only part of the story. Impeachment does not depend on whether his misconduct violated criminal statutes, but rather on whether the president has abused the public trust and poses a threat to the republic. Consider what we already know.

Trump’s campaign sought and accepted Russian assistance in the 2016 election, in at least four different ways. Trump’s campaign manager and son attended a secret meeting with Russian intelligence operatives in the hope of obtaining damaging information about his opponent. His campaign manager passed internal polling data to a Russian intelligence asset. His team worked to coordinate with Wikileaks, a non-state hostile intelligence service closely linked to Russian intelligence, to optimize the timing of releases of hacked information for maximum political impact. And Trump himself stood in front of television cameras and asked the Russian government to release hacked e-mails from his opponent. Meanwhile, through all this, he was negotiating with the Kremlin for a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Trump must have known this would look bad. He and his team repeatedly lied to the public about it, insisting that the meeting with Russian intelligence was just to talk about adoption, that the negotiations for the Moscow real estate project had ended months earlier, and that the call for the Russian government to influence the election was just “a joke.” Yet he must also know that the Russian government knows much more than the American public. Is this why Trump appears so dangerously beholden to Russia — why he would appear on an international stage with Vladimir Putin and take Putin’s side against the US government?

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But Trump has also spent his entire presidency working to frustrate or impede the Russia investigation. The obstruction has been in plain view from the moment that Trump announced on NBC that he had fired the FBI director because of the Russia investigation. Since then, Trump has repeatedly sought to interfere with and undermine that investigation. We should be glad that, according to the attorney general, Mueller’s supervisors did not block him from pursuing any particular cases. But these investigations were undoubtedly made more difficult by Trump’s blatant efforts to intimidate and harass witnesses and prosecutors. The bulk of the evidence of these efforts to obstruct the administration of justice is not secret. It comes from Trump’s own mouth, and his copious Twitter feed. It’s all in the open.

Congress has known all this for months, but has stalled by hiding behind Mueller’s investigation. That excuse will no longer fly. At this point in the Nixon presidency — the Watergate special prosecutor’s report to Congress — the House Judiciary Committee was already five months into its impeachment inquiry. The excuse of waiting for Mueller has passed its expiration date.

It’s time for the House to authorize the Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment investigation. The Constitution demands nothing less.

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Ben Clements is a former federal prosecutor, former chief legal counsel to the governor of Massachusetts, and chairman of the board of Free Speech for People. Ron Fein is the legal director of Free Speech for People. They are coauthors, with John Bonifaz, of “The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump.”