The long-awaited report by special counsel Robert Mueller has landed smack on the fault line of American politics. Just after 5 p.m. on Friday, following a day of rising tension and anticipation in Washington, Attorney General William Barr announced that Mueller had handed over his final findings on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Now that the investigation is over, a new wait begins: Barr needs to decide how much of the report to make public. In a letter to congressional leaders, he said he hoped to brief them on the principal conclusions “as soon as this weekend.”
Fateful decisions lie ahead, and Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and congressional leaders bear a heavy responsibility. Two principles should guide their actions:
• It remains essential that every last bit of evidence, every document, every thread contained in the report of the special prosecutor must become a matter of public record — so that Congress and the American people can render their own judgment. The president himself thinks so: “Let it come out, let people see it,” he said Wednesday.
• This report should represent not the end, but the beginning of an investigative process that will be carried on by federal and state prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions and by Congress on multiple fronts by at least three committees. All of those involved are, by virtue of their job descriptions, duty bound to ferret out corruption, wrongdoing, and violations of the rule of law. The Russia probe is only one of many lines of legitimate inquiry into the president’s apparent misconduct before and during his presidency.
For those who wanted to see Mueller frog-march Donald Trump through the Rose Garden — however unrealistic that was — no mere “report” will ever be enough. But it was never the job of the office of the special counsel to judge Trump’s fitness for office. By all indications, Mueller has performed as the skilled prosecutor he was hired to be. From here on out, judgments in the Russia probe are political ones and will inevitably be made in the political sphere.
What the Mueller investigation has already confirmed is the interference by Russian nationals in the American political process at many different levels. Mueller and his team have racked up an impressive record long before issuing the report, a record that includes 37 indictments, the exposure and prosecution of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the disgrace, removal and prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the prosecution of Trump fixer Michael Cohen, and of political operative Roger Stone.
Those cases and others over the past two years gave rise to reams of court filings, which, well before Mueller’s report, gave the nation a window into the wrongdoing that has been endemic throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and the start of this administration.
It was just last summer, after all, that Mueller announced indictments against 12 Russian agents who “knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other, and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury (collectively the ‘Conspirators’), to gain unauthorized access (to ‘hack’) into the computers of US persons and entities involved in the 2016 US presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.”
For those not in total denial about Russian interference in the 2016 election, it was a hint that there was more to come. And there was — the indictment of Stone. The special counsel demonstrated that some collusion did indeed occur; the remaining mystery has been the extent of it and whether the president himself was involved.
Appropriately, Mueller stuck to the job he was assigned — this was no “witch hunt,” contrary to the president’s aspersions. But his investigation did turn up other leads, and beyond the Russia-related indictments have been the prosecutorial hand-offs to the US attorneys for the Southern District of New York, D.C., and Virginia, who are dealing with at least a half-dozen related cases among them. Cohen, during his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, indicated that his discussions with the US attorney were indeed related to possible illegal activities by Trump himself. The Trump Foundation and the president’s Inaugural Committee are also under investigation in that district.
And the work of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Judiciary Committees proceeds apace. Cohen met behind closed doors with both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The Judiciary Committee launched its probe March 4, into possible obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of power, by sending document requests to 81 individuals and entities linked to the president and his associates.
If the House were to consider possible impeachable offenses by the president, that is where and how such a process would begin.
The nation owes Mueller a huge debt for stepping in to what threatened to become a constitutional and a political crisis after the firing of FBI Director James Comey in 2017. Mueller has shown himself again to be more than an able prosecutor; he is a true and dedicated public servant who values above all else the rule of law.
In the days ahead, that should also be the guiding principle of all of those engaged in the myriad investigations of this administration and this president. And for those who violate the rule of law there should be no mercy and no political redemption.