The partisan battle over the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation broke out within seconds of the Justice Department’s letter on “topline” findings reaching Capitol Hill Sunday afternoon.
Two things were quickly clear: first, the end of Mueller’s exhaustive two-year probe means the political war over whether to impeach President Donald Trump - a battle that has already begun to consume Congress since Democrats took control of the House in November - is only just beginning; and secondly, Mueller gave both sides enough to keep pounding their own message for weeks and months to come.
Trump may have escaped any criminal charges from Mueller's probe, yet impeachment is clearly still on the table as far as many Democrats and progressive outside groups are concerned.
For Republicans, the message from the Mueller report was clear and insistent - “The country needs to move on.” Meanwhile, Democrats immediately countered with “Release the whole Mueller report.” The struggle is now over which side wins that messaging war with the American public.
After months of twisting in the wind over what Mueller would find, Republicans gleefully pounced on the special counsel’s statement that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
From the White House on down to rank-and-file Republicans, that was the green light to push the “move on” message.
“I understand that Democrats today are struggling with their own deep divisions and that it might be easier to attack President Trump than work together for a common cause,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a close Trump ally. “But after months upon months of manufactured outrage on this issue, it is time we move on for the good of the nation and focus on the job we were sent to Washington to do: work to address the real challenges facing our country.”
"I am glad that the special counsel’s investigation has finally drawn to a close and we can put this outrageous chapter behind us," declared House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) "Rather than focus on the issues that affect the lives of everyday Americans, like jobs, health care, and border security, Democrats and their allies in the media have chosen to spend the last 674 days perpetuating conspiracy theories and lies in a shameless effort to discredit a President whose election they still are trying to overturn."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took a less in-your-face tone than his House GOP counterparts, but the Kentucky Republican made clear that he considers the investigation into Trump's actions during the 2016 campaign closed.
McConnell said in a statement that "the Special Counsel’s conclusions confirm the President’s account that there was no effort by his campaign to conspire or coordinate with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election."
Yet Democrats just as quickly noted that Mueller didn’t exonerate Trump on obstruction-of-justice charges either, a huge opening for them to go after the president. According to Mueller, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Democrats quickly demanded.
However, Attorney General William Barr — appointed by Trump — and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein “concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned against drawing any conclusion from the findings, zeroing in on the fact that Mueller didn’t exonerate Trump over obstruction of justice. The Democratic leaders, like other Democrats on Sunday, also criticized Barr’s “public record of bias” against the special counsel’s probe, saying he’s “not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.”
“And most obviously, for the president to say he is completely exonerated directly contradicts the words of Mr. Mueller and is not to be taken with any degree of credibility.”
Barr's quick announcement on not charging Trump infuriated some House Democrats, and they were already plotting their next steps Sunday afternoon. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Barr would be called to testify before the panel “in light of the very concerning discrepancies” in his summary.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), another senior Judiciary Democrat, said the panel would also likely call Mueller to testify.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal Trump critic, called immediately for the public release of the full Mueller report so that Congress could reach its own conclusions about Mueller's findings, without interference from Barr.
"Congress should be able to review the evidence independent of the interpretation of Trump-appointed allies like the Attorney General," Murphy said in a statement. "This is too important to our democracy to keep anything hidden from public view, especially when the future of our democracy is at stake."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) echoed calls for the report to be made public.
“I urge the Attorney General to perform his duty to country and Constitution, ensure that this report is made available to Congress and the public, and resist any attempt by the White House to interfere, " Hoyer said. "Russia and anyone involved in its efforts to undermine our elections or our democratic system of government must be held accountable and made to answer for their actions.”
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) also called for the full report to be released.
“We should not construe a four page letter from the Attorney General with the complete findings of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Clyburn said in a statement. “In the meantime, Congress will continue to fulfill its oath to uphold the constitution by providing oversight of this administration.”
Some Senate Republicans also called for the report to be made public as soon as possible, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who urged in a statement for Barr to release the full report “without jeopardizing U.S. intelligence sources and methods or ongoing Department of Justice prosecutions.”
Earlier this weekend Pelosi dismissed Barr’s summary as “insufficient” and demanded the attorney general release the full scope of Mueller’s investigation – not just the special counsel’s final report but all documents and underlying evidence gathered as part of the probe.
Pelosi told her members on Saturday that she would reject a confidential briefing for leaders of the House and Senate if offered by DOJ, warning officials could hide behind it as a way to shield Mueller’s conclusions from the broader public.
Democrats have said their demands for transparency are no different than Republicans’ successful effort to obtain thousands of investigative documents – including internal emails and private text messages – related to the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use.
Barr’s summary and whatever parts of Mueller’s full report that are eventually released to the public will only further House Democrats’ sprawling investigations into Trump world.
At least six committees are investigating Trump’s administration, financial dealings and businesses, including the wide-ranging Judiciary probe into whether the president obstructed justice.
“Special Counsel Mueller worked for 22 months to determine the extent to which President Trump obstructed justice. Attorney General Barr took 2 days to tell the American people that while the President is not exonerated, there will be no action by DOJ,” Nadler tweeted.
“DOJ owes the public more than just a brief synopsis and decision not to go any further in their work.”
Marianne Levine contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
That’s the clear interpretation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, at least as they were conveyed Sunday by Attorney General William Barr. And it’s the line President Donald Trump’s gloating defenders are promoting.
But without access to Mueller’s full report, we can’t know just how damning—or not—this investigation is for Trump. Justice Department rules say a sitting president can’t be indicted, while other Justice Department rules say it’s wrong to release derogatory information about someone who isn’t charged with a crime.
So unless Barr decides the president is a special case, we might never learn the full extent of Trump’s actions. And we might never learn how close Mueller’s team came to charging Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, let alone others caught up in the Russia scandal. Still, even if Barr does release the bulk of the report, the task was to pursue prosecutions with a reasonable chance of success, not issue a moral judgment on this presidency.
Barr’s summary makes clear that there was no coordinated high-level conspiracy between Russia and Trump to tilt the 2016 presidential election in his favor. Never mind the president’s strange behavior, such as his repeated refusal to so much as admit that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to help him win. And chalk up the many connections between various Trump aides and Russian operatives in 2016 as either meaningless low-level contacts, apparently, or coincidences that don’t add up to a larger pattern.
Maybe former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for instance, was simply trying to repay his multimillion dollar debt to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska when he passed internal polling numbers to his former business partner, Konstantin Kilimnik. Maybe George Papadopoulos, whose previous claim to fame was serving in the Model United Nations, was merely puffing himself up when he drunkenly told an Australian ambassador that Russia had Hillary Clinton’s missing emails—a meeting that reportedly alarmed FBI officials and set off the Russiagate inquiry.
A lot of other weird stuff happened, from the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Clinton to the alleged and plausibly sinister scheme by Michael Flynn and Kushner to set up a back channel to Moscow via the Russian Embassy in Washington. Remember Jeff Sessions’ undisclosed meeting with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak? Carter Page, who practically walked around with a “Kick Me, I’m a Russian Stooge” sign taped to his back? Mariia Butina?
But there are possible explanations for all these oddities that don’t amount to a grand conspiracy to steal an election in exchange for, say, sanctions relief or recognition of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Maybe the Russians forged connections to Trump’s team on the off-chance their efforts to elect him would work. Maybe the meetings themselves were a form of kompromat—because Moscow knew that revealing them would be embarrassing. Maybe different groups of Russians simply saw the same opportunity in Trump’s Russophilia and acted independently.
As for all the lying Trump associates did about their Russia contacts, you can imagine explanations for that too: Practiced liars tend to lie as a matter of habit. And maybe they mistakenly thought they were trying to protect the president and themselves. People make stupid and irrational decisions—especially under pressure.
We should all be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias, the bad habit of interpreting evidence to fit our pre-cooked conclusions. That’s been a major peril of the Russiagate story, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it on occasion. News outlets have hyped and torqued up stories about purported links between Trump and Russia that have evaporated on close inspection. Even carefully reported and cautiously written scoops have been subject to overheated interpretation once they landed on Twitter and cable news. (Baby cannon, anyone?)
But there are also many aspects of Trump’s behavior toward Russia, both as a candidate and as president, that remain baffling. His obsession with that Kremlin bogeyman, NATO. His failure to disclose his pursuit of a hotel project in Moscow even as he ran for the White House, and his subsequent lying about it. His real estate business’ many years of heavy reliance on Russian money.
Strangest of all is Trump’s relationship with Putin, whom he never criticizes directly. Flash back to that fawning July 2018 news conference in Helsinki, at which Trump stood next to his Russian counterpart and said, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” It remains one of the more bizarre performances by an American president abroad.
Interestingly, though, we have gotten some recent clues that might—I repeat, might—help us understand where Trump is coming from. Consider his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose regime is an order of magnitude more odious even than Putin’s. Trump has wooed Kim like a desperate suitor, brushing aside the objections of his own advisers. This week, Trump tweeted his rejection of a new round of large-scale sanctions his administration had just imposed on Pyongyang. The reversal came, the White House gamely explained, because Trump “likes” Kim—a man who once assassinated his own half-brother and machine-guns his internal foes.
There are two common threads here. One is that Trump covets the power these authoritarian leaders exert over their own societies, and he hasn’t been shy about saying so. The second is that he is desperate for a big diplomatic win, be it some sort of great-power compact with Russia, the end of North Korea’s nuclear program or a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Forget about the likelihood or wisdom of any such deals; the point is that Trump is in the habit of flattering, cajoling and wheedling the objects of his affection to get what he wants—whether it’s Putin, Kim or (allegedly!) Stormy Daniels. So maybe there’s nothing special about Putin after all.
And what of Trump’s constant attacks on the Russia probe, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the sniping at Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the endless cries of “witch hunt,” and so on? Isn’t that suspicious?
Sure, but consider an alternative theory: He couldn’t be sure what the investigation would dig up, so he used the scorched-earth tactics he learned from his mentor, attack-lawyer Roy Cohn, just in case. Why did the scorpion sting the frog? Because that’s what scorpions do.
So, as you digest Barr’s very limited four-page summary, consider the possibility—maybe even the likelihood—that the whole thing has been a big misunderstanding.
None of which entirely clears Trump. It’s not moving the goal posts, as some would have it, to note that the Southern District of New York and other prosecutorial bodies are still investigating various aspects of Trumpdom. It’s just a fact. And it’s not moving the goal posts to point out the damning truth that Trump’s campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager and his national security adviser have all been convicted of crimes.
As to whether this more charitable interpretation of his dance with Moscow exonerates Trump, that’s now for Congress—and ultimately the voters—to judge. But we can be certain of one thing: If Trump had colluded with Russia, Mueller likely would have found out.
And as for the great debate about collusion, it depends on what you mean. It seems quite clear now that Trump did not collude with Putin to game the 2016 presidential election. Why he still seems to want to collude with Putin to reshape U.S. foreign policy remains a mystery.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Robert Mueller’s long-awaited Russia report does not take a clear position on whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice, according to a four-page summary of the special counsel’s findings released Sunday by Attorney General William Barr.
“For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leave unresolved what the special counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” Barr wrote.
“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’” Barr added. However, in an apparent departure from the four corners of Mueller’s report, Barr says he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Robert Mueller report remains on track to be shared with Congress and the public later Sunday, opening up the next phase of what could be a protracted legal fight to lift the curtain further on the special counsel’s nearly two-year-long Russia investigation.
Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and their senior aides returned to the Justice Department in the morning for their third consecutive day reviewing the long-awaited Mueller report as calls mounted from the Democratic-led House for a near complete release of all of the special counsel’s investigative findings, evidence and other underlying materials.
The new Trump-appointed attorney general set off a weekend of feverish speculation about the report by notifying congressional leaders in a letter late Friday afternoon that Mueller had concluded his work and that the Justice Department planned to share the “principal conclusions” of the investigation with lawmakers and the public by about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, according to a department official.
Transmission of the politically pivotal findings is expected to come via a letter to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary committees. With congressional offices closed for the weekend, however, plans call for the hotly anticipated summary to be sent via email rather than through the hand-delivery approach that a small team of Justice Department officials carried out with Barr’s first letter on Friday.
Trump, his lawyers and other aides have projected an air of calm while they wait, even though it’s far from clear just how far Barr’s summary will go in addressing a long list of questions that have consumed the White House. All eyes will be focused on what, if anything, the attorney general allows to be said about Mueller’s primary mission: whether Trump and his 2016 campaign conspired with the Kremlin to win the last presidential election.
Another equally explosive question hanging over Barr is whether he’ll release any information about Mueller’s investigation into whether the president obstructed justice to stop the Russia inquiry. The House has already launched its own fact-finding investigations on obstruction-related matters as it considers whether there is enough evidence to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.
Lurking in the background of Barr’s review are myriad subplots, including everything from the so-called Steele dossier — a collection of raw intelligence memos compiled by a former British spy that described a years-long Russian plot to cultivate Trump and propel him to the White House — to the now infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 involving a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and several top Trump campaign officials. That meeting, originally offered on the premise that the Russian government could provide “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, has long been seen as an example of the Trump campaign’s eagerness to benefit politically from stolen Democratic emails.
Another big question is just how much information Barr can even make public from Mueller’s investigation on topics where the special counsel didn’t move to file an indictment against the person. Justice Department policy has historically been to not air people’s dirty laundry if an investigation didn’t lead to charges. On top of that, longstanding department policy dating back to Watergate says a sitting president can’t be indicted while in office, raising the question of whether any details dealing with Trump would even go into the report.
The scenario has alarmed Democrats, who warn that Congress could be limited in its constitutional oversight abilities if the Justice Department didn’t release incriminating materials about the president. “It’s equivalent to a cover-up,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
In an interview Sunday morning, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani conceded that he remained in the dark about the contents of Mueller’s findings, but he projected confidence that the president would be exonerated.
“I expect there will be no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction,” he said. “If it doesn’t go into facts, there shouldn’t be much of an explanation about that.”
Barr’s summary may also shed more light on any outstanding legal matters tied to the Mueller investigation. On Friday, a Justice Department official told reporters that the special counsel would not be filing any new indictments tied to his investigation.
Despite that carefully worded statement, Giuliani said he was not concerned that Mueller had any sealed indictments that still have yet to be made public.
“It’d be an improper use of a sealed indictment unless it’s some foreigner or somebody that is going to be hard to get custody of,” Giuliani said. “If the thinking is there’s a sealed indictment of a member of the administration or a relative of the president, there’d be no reason to seal that indictment. You couldn’t get a judge to seal it for you. What are you going to tell the judge, that Jared Kushner is going to run away?” he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Giuliani also dismissed the notion that federal prosecutors were considering or might have already filed a sealed indictment against Trump himself, saying such a move would trigger an explosive court battle and defy Justice Department legal opinions dating back to Watergate that a sitting president can’t be charged for crimes while in office.
“Ain’t no way they’re going to change that,” Giuliani said. “I’d bet my life that Barr, who plays by the rules, isn’t going to change that rule. And if he did, he’d have a constitutional challenge that’d be massive. I don’t think that’s just a Justice Department rule. That’s a constitutional rule.”
The lack of any public details about potential charges against Trump shouldn’t be interpreted as an all-clear for the president, said Sam Buell, a former federal prosecutor who worked with a senior Mueller deputy, Andrew Weissmann, on the government’s prosecution of Enron executives in the early 2000s.
“Any unbiased observer of Mueller’s political environment has known that as a practical matter his burden of proof, especially for any case very close to the president, would be beyond slam dunk,” said Buell, a Duke University Law School professor. “Any suggestion that less than more indictments means exoneration — of anybody — is preposterous.”
Mueller’s investigation, now finished, isn’t the only game in town for Trump. Federal prosecutors in New York are examining the president’s inauguration and campaign spending. States have active inquiries into Trump’s real estate projects and personal finances. And the summary document Barr is planning to provide will also leave lawmakers with the beginnings of a roadmap as they do their own homework on the question of impeachment.
For the special counsel, impeachment was never something directly on his agenda. It’s an absence that is actually by design and stems from Ken Starr’s five-year tenure investigating President Bill Clinton on a range of controversial matters, including the Democrat’s extramarital affair with a White House intern.
Lawmakers exhausted by Starr’s efforts, which culminated in an unsuccessful and bitterly partisan impeachment effort on Capitol Hill, allowed the post-Watergate law to lapse that authorized those kinds of wide-ranging probe. In its place, the Clinton Justice Department wrote new rules governing future executive branch investigations but dropped the requirement that Starr faced to report any potential impeachable offenses to Congress.
Mueller’s investigators have been working under those same Clinton-era rules and faced no explicit mandate to tell Congress about any possible Trump crimes they found. Essentially, for all the work the special counsel just did to examine the president for possible obstruction of justice, experts say the onus is on lawmakers to decide whether they want to build their own record to try and remove Trump.
“If the House wants to consider impeachment, it needs to do its own work,” Starr wrote in an Atlantic op-ed published Friday.
“It would be odd in the extreme to ask, in effect, the executive branch to become a tool of the legislative branch in a death-struggle with the only individual identified in the Constitution as the possessor and wielder of executive power: the president,” Starr added. “That was the old way, under the old statute. Congress did away with that approach, and wisely so.”
Faced with such limits, House Democrats are struggling with their own next steps.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wouldn’t allow impeachment proceedings to begin unless one or more true smoking guns emerged that rose to the level of the Constitution’s loosely defined “high crimes and misdemeanors” requirement. She also wants to see significant numbers of Republicans show an interest in backing such an effort; otherwise, the California Democrat said, an attempt to remove Trump is “just not worth it.”
Meanwhile, her Democratic committee leaders have started building a record in case impeachment is a necessary option.
Nadler is working through the thousands of pages of documents from Trump aides and associates that arrived after an initial batch of 81 letters went out earlier this month that seek to duplicate the record Mueller has. Nadler and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), have also said they’ll try to subpoena the bulk of Mueller’s investigative work.
Both Democrats have also said they are ready to call Mueller up to Capitol Hill to deliver both private and public testimony, though people who know the soon-to-be-former special counsel are skeptical he’d divert from a script approved by the Justice Department and divulge details beyond what’s been released to Congress.
While lawmakers may lack in seeing specific mentions of Trump in a Mueller report, that doesn’t mean the president can slip completely under the radar. In New York, prosecutors who secured a guilty plea from Michael Cohen said that Trump directed his longtime personal lawyer to make payments to two women to keep them silent about alleged extramarital affairs.
“You can call someone ‘Individual 1’ all you want,” said James Trusty, a former federal prosecutor and friend of Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. “You don’t have to be a Navajo code talker to decipher who that is.”
While Trump’s hostility toward Mueller’s investigation has been unmistakable, he has sent mixed messages about the report. Weeks ago, Trump said he looked forward to seeing it. He also gave House Republicans a green light to join what would end up being a 420-0 vote for the report’s release.
However, in remarks and an interview earlier this week, the president suggested that the special counsel should have never been in position to prepare it.
“Now, somebody is going to write a report who never got a vote,” Trump complained to reporters on Wednesday.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand wants to be the most anti-Trump candidate running for president in 2020, and she took her campaign to one of Donald Trump’s gilded front doors to prove the point.
The New York Democrat, who launched her campaign last week, stood outside the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan on Sunday to rail against the president for “tearing apart the moral fabric of our country” and to tell voters that she’s compiled the most anti-Trump record, “more than anyone else in the Senate.”
The location was part of Gillibrand’s efforts to carve out room in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary by painting herself as the biggest possible contrast with Trump. But it could also have a more immediate side effect: a tweet or some sort of reaction from the impulsive president, which could prove a massive boon for a campaign that has yet to gain traction in polling.
Pointing to the Trump Hotel, Gillibrand told the crowd of several hundred: “Look up at that tower — a shrine to greed, division and vanity. And now look around you. The greater strength, by far, is ours. The power lies within us.
“The people of this country deserve a president who is worthy of your bravery, a president who not only sets an example, but follows yours,” Gillibrand continued. “Your bravery inspires me every day, and that is why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Gillibrand, who has campaigned across the country since mid-January, when she launched an exploratory committee, has struggled to break out of the sprawling pack of 17 candidates, which includes five other senators. She has barely registered in national and early state polling, hovering at or below 1 percent.
Gillibrand has also faced criticism over the handling of a sexual harassment claim in her Senate office, in which a staffer resigned in protest over the office’s handling of her claim, which POLITICO first reported earlier this month.
Gillibrand has defended her office’s response, saying that the complaints were “fully investigated,” but when presented with reporting of additional allegations of workplace misconduct by the accused aide, Gillibrand’s office opened a new investigation and dismissed him.
“She’s clearly not breaking through, and she needs to do something” to change that, said Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. And “frankly, getting the president’s attention usually goes viral.”
Taking on Trump more directly might provoke a response. That kind of attention, whether from the president or national Republican groups, served as rocket fuel for a number of Democratic candidates in the recent midterm elections, said Dan Sena, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Candidates like New York’s Antonio Delgado and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger were “unfairly attacked during their races and it elevated their campaigns nationally” and led to “enormous grassroots support,” Sena said , adding the same could happen for Gillibrand. “Getting Trump to say something, to tweet something, you can begin to see what a general election match up looks like and moves [Gillibrand] in the electorate and raises a ton of support and money.”
Gillibrand skewered the president in her speech Sunday, calling Trump a “coward” who “puts his name in bold on every building,” and saying “he does all of this because he wants you to believe he is strong. He is not." Gillibrand also called for the full release of the recently completed report by special counsel Robert Mueller: “The Mueller report must be made public. All of it. Nobody in this country, not even the president, is above the law or immune from accountability."
But Gillibrand also said that she’s “not running for president because of who I’m fighting against.”
“I’m running for president because of who I’m running for, she said.”
She reiterated themes that first appeared in her announcement video — “brave wins” — and worked to turn the page on the first two months of her presidential campaign.
“We deserve a president who is brave, a president who inspires us to stand for something greater than ourselves,” she said. “We don’t build walls, we build bridges because our unity of purpose lifts us higher than any tower.”
The senator was joined onstage by activists, including Dreamers, migrants brought to the country illegally as children; anti-gun violence advocates; and victims of sexual assault. It was a lineup reminiscent of the Women’s March, a movement that Gillibrand has tapped into for her presidential campaign.
“She cannot be knocked down, guys. Not in front of Trump plaza or anywhere else,” said actress Connie Britton, who befriended Gillibrand in college and studied abroad with her in China and introduced her on Sunday. “This bravery comes from her unwavering core of integrity.”
Gillibrand retold much of her own political history, starting with grandmother Polly Noonan, a fixture in upstate New York politics, who taught her “that being brave doesn’t only mean standing up for yourself, it means standing up for other people who need you."
She charted her own path through politics, from winning in a “red, red, red district that nobody thought I could win,” to passing a health benefits law for 9/11 first responders and trying to reform how the military handles sexual assault and harassment.
"Find me any unsolvable problem, and I'll point to the greed and corruption standing in the way," Gillibrand said, adding that she won't accept corporate PAC money, federal lobbyists' money and an individual super PAC. She also said she would advocate for publicly funded elections.
On policy, Gillibrand sounded progressive notes that she’s frequently talked about on the campaign trail, from a national paid family leave program to the "Green New Deal," calling it “this generation’s moonshot,” and promising to tax the use of carbon.
“We can’t afford not to achieve this,” Gillibrand said. “And we don’t have more time to waste.”
To observers, it appeared that Gillibrand’s choice of location for her speech meant she wasn’t waiting to change the campaign.
“If you want to get a reaction, go to somebody’s home turf,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant. “It’s a smart gesture that could help her get on the map.”
But even among the New Yorkers who rallied with Gillibrand on Sunday, several said it was too early to commit to one candidate.
"There's just so many talented people running," said Michele Chivu, a 46-year-old New Yorker who attended the speech. She said she "felt strongly" about Gillibrand, but she ticked off several other female Democrats, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as other compelling options. "I'm excited about all of the women," she said. "We need a woman at the top of the ticket."
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Lawmakers struggled on Sunday to respond to the still heavily guarded report from special counsel Robert Mueller, as the intense anticipation for a glimpse of its findings entered a third day.
Top lawmakers fanned out across the national news shows to deliver their party’s line. Democrats ratcheted up demands for complete disclosure of the report on contacts with Russian operatives by President Donald Trump’s associates. And Republicans hailed the unseen report as an exoneration of the president because it includes no new recommendations for indictments.
But without central details, both parties appeared to be grasping for a consistent message and, in the GOP’s case, offered flat-out contradictions.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Congress must show respect for Mueller’s work.
“We also have to respect what the Department of Justice and Mr. Mueller’s been doing,” Collins said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If we do that, then the American people can see we are respecting the rule of law.”
But Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and one of Trump’s closest allies, trashed Mueller’s report as worthless.
“We can just burn it up,” he said on “Fox & Friends.” “It is a partisan document.”
The report, a summary of which could be released as early as Sunday afternoon, comes after Mueller concluded his nearly two-year investigation without any new indictments, a sign that Trump’s allies raced to interpret as a conclusion that the special counsel had found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians.
Attorney General William Barr arrived at the Justice Department headquarters at 10 a.m. Sunday for his second full day of reviewing Mueller’s findings, which were filed on Friday afternoon. He intends to craft a summary of the report that he delivers to Congress and potentially the public as soon as Sunday night.
Democrats continued to signal on Sunday that this summary would be insufficient, no matter what it showed. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), insisted that Congress be granted access to the underlying files that Mueller relied upon to reach his conclusions.
Schiff said that despite Mueller’s apparent decision not to charge any Americans with conspiring with Russian officials to interfere with the 2016 election, there was still “significant evidence of collusion” — just possibly not enough to rise to the high legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Schiff also took issue with Mueller’s decision not to force the issue of directly interviewing the president during his nearly two-year-long investigation.
“I’ve said this all along: It was a mistake to rely on written responses by the president,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Democrats are also wary that Mueller may be sitting on damning evidence against Trump that is kept from public view because Justice Department guidelines prohibit indicting a sitting president. That would leave Congress as the only check on a president who might otherwise have committed a criminal offense, they said.
“It’s equivalent to a cover-up,” Nadler said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Trump himself continued to lie low on Sunday, tweeting a “good morning” to his followers from Florida but declining for the third straight day to comment on the filing of the Mueller report. His attorney Rudy Giuliani projected with confidence that the summary of findings would be conclusive.
“I expect there will be no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction,” Giuliani said in an interview.
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries on Sunday said Democrats would try to find ways to work with President Donald Trump in key policy areas, even as he and others in Democratic leadership call for continued investigations of potential wrongdoing by Trump.
“We are not focused on impeachment,” the New Yorker said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We are focused on executing our for-the-people agenda,” which he said would focus on lowering health care costs and revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure.
“We’re going to try to do everything we can to find common ground,” he said.
Jeffries, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said an “overwhelming majority” of that caucus's members support Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s position against impeaching the president.
“We are not going to proceed unless the case is compelling, the evidence is overwhelming and, most importantly, public sentiment around impeachment is bipartisan,” he said.
Earlier in the interview, Jeffries echoed calls for the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
“The American people deserve to know whether Donald Trump is either A) a legitimate president, B) a Russian asset, C) the functional equivalent of an organized crime boss or D) just a useful idiot who happens to have been victimized by the greatest collection of coincidences in the history of the republic,” he said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday said President Donald Trump’s tweet that he would reverse sanctions on North Korea that had just been imposed by the Treasury Department could cause people to second-guess future announcements of sanctions.
Rubio (R-Fla.) said sanctions go through “a long interagency process” and must be OK'd by the president before they are announced.
“Frankly, look, I think people around the world would look at it and say from now on, when they hear about sanctions, they're going to ask for a double confirmation from the White House,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So, look, I wish it hadn't happened that way, and it shouldn't have happened that way.”
Trump‘s Friday tweet set off widespread confusion when he appeared to announce that he would undo recently imposed sanctions on North Korea.
“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump wrote. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
After hours of uncertainty, administration officials insisted Trump had not been referring to the new sanctions on North Korea that his administration rolled out a day before. Instead, the officials claimed, the president was saying he was opposing not-yet-announced sanctions on Pyongyang.
“I've never seen that before from this or any administration, so something happened here,” Rubio said.
The senator also said he’s skeptical that ongoing negotiations between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un would lead the Asian country to give up its nuclear weapons.
“I would love for Kim Jong Un to give up his weapons and everything else,” Rubio said. “And I don't criticize the president for trying. I just never believed he would. I don't believe he ever will.
“I'm not skeptical because I want it to fail; I'm skeptical because I believe it will fail,” he said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Sunday that special counsel Robert Mueller made “a mistake” by not interviewing President Donald Trump as part of his investigation into Russia's election interference.
“I’ve said this all along: It was a mistake to rely on written responses by the president,” Schiff told host George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” as those premeditated answers to prosecutors’ queries are “generally more what the lawyer has to say than what the individual has to say.
“I can certainly understand why the lawyers like [Trump attorney Rudy] Giuliani were fighting this because the president is someone who seems pathologically incapable of telling the truth for long periods of time,” Schiff (D-Calif.) said.
“But, nonetheless, if you really do want the truth, you need to put people under oath, and that should have been done,” he said.
Schiff speculated that Mueller’s decision not to interview Trump may have been related to a longstanding Justice Department policy against indicting sitting presidents and any further negotiation between Mueller's prosecutors and Trump’s legal team would have unnecessarily prolonged the probe.
“The special counsel may have made the decision that, as he could not indict a sitting president on the obstruction issue, as it would draw out his investigation, that that didn't make sense,” Schiff said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump hopes you have a great day.
As the world braces for the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation, the president is trying to project confidence and calm.
On Sunday morning, Trump broke an unusual nearly-40-hour streak of Twitter silence. But instead of delivering an angry rant about the Mueller “witch hunt” or declaring “NO COLLUSION,” as he often has when there are developments in the probe, he dashed off a pair of simple tweets, both banal by the president’s standards.
“Good Morning, Have A Great Day!” he wrote just after 8 a.m., followed by, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Soon after, the president’s motorcade departed his private Mar-a-Lago club and made the short trek to his nearby golf course, leaving reporters to toil away at a library across the street.
White House aides and others close to Trump insist that the president is in good spirits, despite the impending release of a summary of Mueller’s findings. It helps that Trump is in his happy place, mingling with like-minded Mar-a-Lago guests and spending hours on the golf course away from cable news and Twitter, which often set the president off.
“The president is in a remarkably good mood,” Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told POLITICO on Sunday morning. “He’s never terribly bothered by these things. The only time the president has ever been bothered is when they go after other people. When they go after the people that work with him, he feels they’re paying a very unfair price.”
The president’s senior advisers, attorneys and friends have spent the weekend reassuring the president and telling him he shouldn’t be worried, according to people familiar with the matter. They’ve repeatedly pointed to one recent development to bolster their case that the big Mueller reveal will be a bust: the news that Mueller’s office will not recommend any further indictments.
Aides and advisers have also homed in on a section of Attorney General William Barr’s Friday letter to Congress in which he said there were no instances where top Justice Department officials stopped Mueller’s team from doing something because they deemed it “inappropriate or unwarranted.” That shows that the administration didn’t interfere in the investigation, Trump’s backers say.
In the interview, Giuliani said that he too remained in the dark about the contents of the special counsel’s findings. But he nonetheless projected confidence about what it would say.
“I expect there will be no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction. If it doesn’t go into facts, there shouldn’t be much of an explanation of that,” he said.
A senior DOJ official on Friday told reporters that the special counsel would not be filing any new indictments tied to his investigation. Despite that carefully-worded statement, Giuliani said he was not concerned that Mueller still had any sealed indictments that still have yet to be made public.
“It’d be an improper use of a sealed indictment unless it’s some foreigner or somebody that is going to be hard to get custody of,” Giuliani said. “If the thinking is there’s a sealed indictment of a member of the administration or a relative of the president, there’d be no reason to seal that indictment. You couldn’t get a judge to seal it for you. What are you going to tell the judge, that Jared Kushner is going to run away?”
Giuliani also dismissed the notion that federal prosecutors were considering or may have already filed a sealed indictment against Trump himself, saying such a move would trigger an explosive court battle and defy Justice Department legal opinions dating back to Watergate that a sitting president can’t be charged for crimes while in office.
“Ain’t no way they’re going to change that,” Giuliani said. “I’d bet my life that Barr, who plays by the rules isn’t going to change that rule and if he did, he’d have a constitutional challenge that’d be massive. I don’t think that’s just a Justice Department rule. That’s a constitutional rule.”
The president’s supporters took glee in publicly bashing Democrats and reporters for spending so much time obsessing over the Mueller investigation. “Mainstream media now at a crossroads. Will they admit fault for fake Russia hoax and go back to actual journalism or continue with their @realDonaldTrump Derangement Syndrome,” Trump ally David Bossie wrote on Twitter soon after news broke that Mueller had completed his investigation. “I think I know the answer.”
Trump allies are planning to continue to cast Democrats and the media as the ringleaders of a partisan fishing expedition, betting that the public will empathize with the president if the Mueller report doesn’t feature game-changing revelations.
Still, White House officials remain in wait-and-see mode, still unsure of exactly what the report will say. As of Sunday morning, the White House had not yet been briefed on or received the Mueller report, aides said.
Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and their senior aides spent Saturday reviewing Mueller’s report and they were back at it on Sunday, with the potential public release of the special counsel’s top-line conclusions expected as early as the afternoon. Justice Department officials are also embarking on a larger review of the whole Mueller document amid a clamor from lawmakers for its near complete release.
Mueller’s office, meanwhile, is closing up shop.
Barr said in his Friday letter to Congress that he’d be consulting with the special counsel about what information he could release to Congress and the public about the nearly two-year old Russia probe. At the same time, Mueller spokesman Peter Carr said Mueller planned to conclude his service in the “coming days” while a few support staff remain on board to shutter the office.
Carr also confirmed on Sunday morning that plans are being implemented to hand off Mueller’s active cases, with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C., taking over Roger Stone’s trial that is slated to begin in early November and the sentencing for Rick Gates that has been repeatedly delayed over the last year while the former Trump campaign deputy cooperated in several ongoing investigations.
Federal prosecutors in D.C. will also handle Mueller’s case against Concord Management and Consulting, Carr said. The Russian-based company led by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin has hired American lawyers and is demanding a trial to fight back against charges it helped orchestrate the massive online campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
No final decisions have been made yet, Carr added, over who will take the lead on two other high-profile active Mueller cases: the sentencing for Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and efforts to force compliance with a subpoena against Andrew Miller, a Stone associate who last month lost in federal appeals court in his attempt to have the Mueller appointment tossed out as unconstitutional.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler on Sunday called for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to be released publicly along with any underlying evidence, arguing that doing less could be considered a “cover-up.”
Mueller did not drop new indictments as he wrapped up his nearly 2-year-old probe, but Nadler said President Donald Trump might have been shielded from criminal indictments because of the office he holds. If that is the case, Nadler said, Congress would hold him accountable.
“If the president cannot be indicted … as a matter of law, then the only way to hold the president accountable is for Congress to consider it and act, if warranted,” Nadler said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Congress can only do that if it has the information,” he added. “For the department to take the position that, ‘We’re not going to give information because he’s not indicted, like a normal person who’s not indicted because of lack of evidence,’ is equivalent to a cover-up and subverts the only ability to hold the president accountable.”
He also said it was possible that there had been abuses of power that did not technically constitute a crime.
On another interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Nadler said his committee would use subpoenas, if necessary, to continue gathering information, but he said it would first try to negotiate.
“We’re already hearing the president may want to claim executive privilege for some of this, but the fact is he has no right to claim executive privilege on any evidence of wrongdoing,” he said.
But Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the committee’s top Republican, said it would be more logical to assume, based on the lack of additional action recommended by Mueller, that nothing criminal had occurred.
“If Mr. Nadler is saying that our committee is supposed to be a paintbrush that just simply tries to taint the presidency and paint the presidency with doubt and innuendo then I would disagree with that,” said Collins, who was interviewed after Nadler on Fox. “That’s an abuse of power.”
Asked if it were possible Mueller had not recommended indicting Trump because he is the president, Collins said it’s unclear that is the reason.
“Probably what the facts showed was that there was no collusion,” he said. “Let’s go to the logical choice that nothing happened.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, defended his assessment Sunday that there exists “significant evidence of collusion” between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Kremlin — despite word from the Justice Department that special counsel Robert Mueller will not be recommending any further indictments in his investigation into Russian election interference.
“There's a difference between compelling evidence of collusion and whether the special counsel concludes that he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the criminal charge of conspiracy,” Schiff told host George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I leave that decision to Bob Mueller, and I have full confidence in him,” Schiff continued, adding that Americans owe Mueller “a debt of gratitude” for conducting his 22-month-long probe “as professionally as he has.”
“I trust in his prosecutorial judgment,” Schiff said.
“But that doesn't mean, of course, that there isn’t compelling and incriminating evidence that should be shared with the American people.”
Attorney General William Barr received Mueller’s completed report on Friday afternoon, and is expected to present its “principal conclusions” to lawmakers as soon as Sunday. The House earlier this month unanimously approved a resolution calling for Mueller’s report to be made public.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the hero is depicted in righteous fury at his aides’ admission that they could not secure the votes to push the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, through Congress.
“Buzzards’ guts, man! I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power,” says actor Daniel Day-Lewis, with steely intent and determination. “You will procure me these votes!”
As we ponder the legal and political reverberations of Robert Mueller’s report, it is useful to remember that the office of the American presidency remains clothed in immense prestige and power. This is not to say that Donald Trump will join Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore. But presidential brawn makes it likely that, should he choose, Trump will survive to face the voters at the polls in 2020.
Trump supporters can take solace when they consider two recent presidents—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—each of whom faced crippling scandals in their second terms but prevailed (albeit in their second terms) with their popularity intact. Even Richard Nixon, the only president to resign the office, buttresses the point. Nixon faced huge obstacles in the Watergate years—an opposition Congress, a rotten economy, a hostile press—but he might have survived, buoyed by a loyal base, had he not lost a battle in the U.S. Supreme Court and been forced to release a “smoking gun” tape.
There is plenty of evidence in the public domain suggesting that President Trump obstructed justice, not least by firing Justice Department officials who were probing Russian involvement in the 2016 election. But unless the Mueller report contain a smoking gun—and we already know it does not recommend any further indictments—one can see why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently labeled calls for impeachment a distraction. The Founders worked hard to give each branch of government the power to check the others. The hurdle for conviction is high: a two-thirds vote in the Senate. The task of removing a leader from office is primarily reserved for the voters.
But Nixon was driven from office, you say. Well, consider how arduous a task it was, how many miscalculations he made, and how long it took. And even then, at the end, when he resigned the office in August 1974, four out of 10 Americans didn’t want him to go.
The break-ins at Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building took place in May and June of 1972. Within hours after they were caught red-handed at the scene, the burglars’ ties to the White House and the Nixon re-election campaign were exposed. Yet he triumphed in November 1972 nonetheless, and it took more than two years for his support to erode. The country was polarized by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the culture wars, and Nixon’s “silent majority” of Republicans, southerners and aggrieved blue-collar Democrats stood fast in his defense.
With amazing resilience, Nixon survived a series of blows in 1973: the testimony of aides that tied him to the scandal, the resignation of top White House officials as their cover-up unraveled, and “the Watergate summer” of televised hearings—more than 300 hours of testimony all told—by a Senate select committee. In October, his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was forced from office in a bribery scandal.
Nixon had kept the economy roaring for the 1972 election, but the bill came due in 1973. The stock market crashed. Americans were confronted by double-digit inflation, soaring meat and oil prices, and lines of angry motorists at gasoline stations.
The voters responded to the pocketbook issues, with 42 percent telling Republican pollsters that inflation was the leading issue facing the country. But, in the midst of the hearings, only 9 percent listed Watergate. Two-thirds of the public thought it was time to move on, and just 17 percent favored impeachment.
It was a different era, to be sure. The powers of the presidency had grown steadily in the 20th century, as chief executives grappled with the Great Depression, World War II and the threat of nuclear war. Communism was a unifying foe. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower expanded the national security state and, with muscular claims of executive privilege, defied congressional attempts to check their powers. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon waged undeclared war in Southeast Asia.
In 1973, the Justice Department concluded that a sitting president could not face indictment. The only constitutional remedy for alleged presidential criminality, the department ruled, was impeachment. Yet that process had been tarnished by the Radical Republicans’ partisan assault on President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and was suspect among all but the most radical, liberal Democrats. The necessary votes for conviction seemed an insurmountable hurdle.
Nixon’s White House taping system was what ultimately did him in. There is no comparably damning evidence from the Trump administration scandals, as yet.
The existence of the tapes was disclosed in the Watergate hearings, and the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, quickly went to court to obtain them. Nixon then marshalled the prestige of the presidency.
He claimed executive privilege – a legal doctrine that protects deliberations in the executive branch from undue scrutiny. He had watched it used to great effect, from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, during his career. Truman had wielded it against Nixon and Congress in the Alger Hiss spy case in 1948, and Eisenhower had employed the privilege against Congress during the McCarthy Era, when Nixon was Ike’s vice president.
“National security” was another ace in the hole. The courts and Congress had conceded that the Cold War’s unique dangers required not just an expansion in presidential war-making authority and extended domestic surveillance, but a need to keep such actions secret. Nixon and his aides can be heard on the tapes, repeatedly, assuring each other that their misdeeds could be cloaked by the claim of “national security.”
And so Nixon was caught off guard, in the fall of 1973, when the courts rejected his claim of executive privilege. It brought on the first of three crises that, over time, eroded his popular support. To keep Cox from the tapes, Nixon fired the prosecutor, igniting a political conflagration that raised the possibility of impeachment. It became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. And it led to a reassertion of congressional authority, as 33 Republicans joined the Democrats to override his veto of the War Powers Act, which limited a president’s power to deploy American troops without congressional approval.
But even after the Saturday Night Massacre, only a third of the respondents in the Gallup poll thought the president should be forced from office. “Despite the increasingly negative views of Nixon at that time, most Americans continued to reject the notion that Nixon should leave,” wrote the late Pew pollster Andrew Kohut in a 2014 analysis. The portion of Americans who thought impeachment was warranted didn’t approach 50 percent until Nixon’s next self-imposed crisis, the following spring.
The president – increasingly desperate – appeared on national television on April 29, 1974 with a stack of bound volumes that contained edited versions of the tapes. Even in their expurgated form (the phrase “expletive deleted” entered the American political lexicon) the transcripts put damning words in Nixon’s mouth. “I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else,” he was heard to say.
Like his firing of Cox, Nixon’s release of the transcripts backfired. Americans were fascinated by this opportunity to eavesdrop on a president. Two paperback editions sold 3 million copies in a week. What readers found was the cynical, profane exchanges of politics at work, not the majesty of the Oval Office. “Sheer flesh-crawling repulsion. The back room of a second-rate advertising agency in a suburb of hell,” wrote columnist Joseph Alsop. “Deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral” said the Senate minority leader, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania. “The political foundation of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency seemed to split apart beneath him,” Congressional Quarterly reported.
Yet, despite the pounding, and with Nixon’s overall approval rating down to 25 percent, the public support for his removal was still stuck at 44 percent. Then came the smoking gun, one of a group of tapes that was not included in the transcripts.
The now-famous smoking gun tape was recorded in the week after Nixon’s men were caught burglarizing and bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in June 1972. It is hard to minimize its impact, legally or politically: It explicitly captured the president ordering a cover-up.
On June 23, 1972, Nixon’s chief of staff – H.R. Haldeman – had suggested that they use the CIA to halt the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. Nixon approved: “Call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it.”
An equivalent bit of evidence today would show Trump ordering aides to offer foreign policy concessions to Vladimir Putin in a deal for Russia’s help destroying the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
On July 24, 1974 the Supreme Court ruled, in United States v. Nixon, that while the doctrine of executive privilege was valid, it was limited in criminal cases. The decision was unanimous, with Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Nixon appointee, writing the opinion.
The release of the tape ended Nixon’s presidency. “The magnificent public career of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily,” said an emotional Rep. Charles Wiggins, the Republican from California who had argued in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings that without such a smoking gun the president must survive.
Within days Republican leaders – House minority leader John Rhodes of Arizona, Senate minority leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and 1964 standard bearer Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona – met with Nixon in the Oval Office and told him that he surely would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. Even then, however, 43 percent of those surveyed in the Gallup Poll declined to endorse his impeachment.
And this came at a time when there was no Fox News, or social media, to rally Nixon’s base. “If I had to depend on my information on the Washington Post, the New York Times and CBS, I’d hate the son-of-a-bitch too,” said Nixon speechwriter Ray Price to a friend.
There is a reason no president has been impeached and convicted. Had Nixon burned his tapes, he probably would have made it to the end of his term and been revered as a statesman today.
As for Trump, we’ll see if Mueller has anything comparable to the smoking gun tape. The important thing to remember is that ousting Nixon was no certain thing. As it would undoubtedly be for Trump today.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The special prosecutor’s work is over. Now is it time for a commission?
With the announcement Friday that Robert Mueller has completed his nearly two-year investigation into whether President Trump and his campaign conspired with Russia, much of Washington is beside itself with anticipation as Attorney General William Barr reviews Mueller’s findings. But whatever might be in the Mueller report—and no matter how thorough of a job the special counsel might have done—his investigation will not put an end to the great national security threat revealed in the 2016 election: the possibility that a foreign power is determining the outcome of American elections and will meddle again when voters try to choose a president next year. Senior federal law-enforcement and intelligence officials agree the threat of foreign meddling remains dire—and that it is perhaps as serious as any that has confronted American democracy in their lifetimes.
That explains the need for Congress to consider establishing an independent, bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to pick up where Mueller leaves off. Mueller was not asked to offer systematic solutions to the danger of foreign election interference. Torn by partisanship, Congress seems unable to deal with the issue itself. But there could be enough agreement in Congress to muster support for legislation to create a commission, likely modeled on the 9/11 commission, to look for concrete solutions to the threat of election meddling. Unlike Mueller, the commission could be given the important assignment of educating the public about exactly what happened in 2016 and resolving whatever questions Mueller leaves unaddressed in his still-secret report. The 9/11 commission’s final report in 2004, after all, was hailed for its gripping, easy-to-understand narrative of the 2001 terrorist attacks and of the rise of global terrorist networks.
In 2017, during the frenzied days after Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was House minority leader at the time, and Congressman Adam Schiff of California, then ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and now its chairman, called for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate foreign meddling in the last presidential election. But the idea was quietly shelved. Democrats appeared to agree then on the more urgent need for a special counsel—with subpoena power and the ability to bring criminal charges—to get to work, especially if there was any possibility that Russia was controlling the actions of a newly elected American president. Plus, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, so Pelosi and her deputies had no ability to insist on much of anything.
Now, though, Mueller’s investigation is over; the Democrats are in charge in the House. And the Russia threat looms. The nation’s principal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have agreed unanimously that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, with the intention of electing Trump, and that Moscow is continuing to meddle. Because of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, Congress has not ordered sweeping changes in election security procedures. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for protecting the integrity of balloting nationwide, was criticized by its inspector general just last month for having failed to organize a “well-coordinated approach to securing the nation’s election infrastructure.”
The 9/11 commission is the most natural model for a potential commission to investigate foreign election meddling. Unlike the Warren Commission, which investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and failed to resolve central mysteries around his death, the 9/11 commission offered a final report that was widely accepted by the public. Its central recommendation was the creation of a new Cabinet-level post—director of national intelligence—to force intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to cooperate in responding to terrorist threats and other national security dangers. Since the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created in 2005, there have been sharply different appraisals of its performance, with critics arguing that it duplicates the work of other agencies. But the post may have demonstrated its importance once and for all under the current director, Dan Coats, a Republican former senator named by Trump. He is seen by members of both parties as a valuable independent voice on intelligence issues and has often been the face of public warnings about the threat of Russian election meddling—sometimes to Trump’s annoyance.
Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska who was a member of the 9/11 commission, told me he believes a similar independent commission is needed in light of the threat of more election interference by Russia and other foreign powers—and of how many Americans remain ignorant of the danger. “You have an authoritarian government that has interfered in our democracy, and is continuing to interfere, and I don’t think enough Americans understand that,” he said in an interview.
Kerrey said the commission’s leaders should be as prominent as possible to demonstrate the issue’s importance. He offered the names of two high-profile candidates to lead the panel: former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “They’re the names I think of,” Kerrey said. “However you structure this, you need to show the public that this is above politics.” He noted that, in his service on the 9/11 commission, he insisted behind-the-scenes that the panel issue a unanimous report and that there be no dissent of any kind, even though there were often sharp partisan differences between the panel’s five Democrats and five Republicans. “I insisted: no minority reports,” he said. “I feel pride about that.”
The selection of former presidents to lead such a bipartisan commission has a modern precedent. After the disputed 2000 presidential election between Bush and Vice President Al Gore, former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter led a federal commission on election-law reform that recommended an overhaul of election and voter-registration procedures across the country. The original chairman of the 9/11 commission was equally high-profile: Henry Kissinger, though he quickly stepped aside and was replaced by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, a moderate Republican who championed bipartisanship in the investigation.
A Republican member of the 9/11 commission, John Lehman, who was Navy secretary in the Ronald Reagan administration, said he would also endorse the creation of a new 9/11-style commission, but only if it had a mandate that went beyond election meddling and took on even larger national security threats related to cybersecurity and disinformation. Foreign meddling in U.S. elections “is indeed a serious problem, but it is a subset of the far broader cyber/disinformation assault on all infrastructure,” Lehman said, noting the potential for a foreign power to shut down the U.S. power grid or Internet.
The idea of a commission would almost certainly face opposition from congressional Republicans, including many in the House who have insisted that the Russia threat is overblown or even nonexistent. It also seems more than likely that Trump would oppose congressional legislation to create an independent commission. But there was similar Republican opposition to creation of the 9/11 commission, including from Bush and his deputies, who warned that the work would distract from the government’s effort to prevent another terrorist attack. The GOP’s opposition was overcome in the face of growing bipartisan momentum for some sort of independent investigation into whether bungling by intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, as well as by the Bush White House, had allowed terrorists to strike on 9/11.
Trump, in fact, might take some comfort from the history of the 9/11 commission and the way it was structured by Congress. Under legislation creating the panel, Bush was able to choose the 9/11 commission’s chairman—first Kissinger, then Kean. Congressional Republican leaders chose the other four Republican members. House and Senate Democrat leaders chose the panel’s five Democrats.
And while the Bush White House clearly feared that the 9/11 commission would hold individual Bush administration officials accountable for pre-9/11 intelligence errors, the commission’s leaders announced publicly at the start of the investigation in 2003 that there would be no finger-pointing against individuals. The panel’s report revealed catastrophic bungling at the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and the White House before 9/11, but no individuals were blamed, at least not by name. As a result, no senior government officials were ever disciplined or fired as a direct result of their actions before or after 9/11. Some of them, in fact, won promotions to even more powerful jobs.
Ultimately, Bush welcomed the findings of the commission he had once opposed and thanked the panel for “learning about went wrong prior to September 11 and making very solid, sound recommendations about how to move forward.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine