Mueller’s comments weaken Democrats’ case

The Briefing, Vol. VII, Issue 22

This week:

  • What Mueller’s comments meant
  • Don’t bet on impeachment now
  • Warren’s sly positioning

President 2020:

After Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s public statement last week, Democratic calls to impeach President Trump intensified. Concrete efforts in the U.S. House to make impeachment a reality are taking shape.

Meanwhile, Republicans took the exact same comments from Mueller as a sign that impeachment is unwarranted — even ridiculous.

So what’s going on here?

Politics of impeachment:

It’s worth noting that the Democratic congressional leadership is trying to split the difference here. Hoping to avoid an impeachment process that would surely harm Democrats’ performance in 2020 (and even in the coming state races of 2019), the top Democrats on Capitol Hill find themselves threading a tough needle. On the one hand, they must mollify their left-wing base by keeping impeachment on the table. Hence their talk of describing Trump’s and his aides behavior as “criminal” without actually taking any action to punish him. On the other hand, Democratic leaders must avoid doing anything that actually leads to or permits a vote on impeachment.

So far, there doesn’t appear to be any move on House Republicans’ part to force such a vote, although it might be clever politics for them to do so at some point, just to make every House Democrat put up or shut up.

A similar ambivalence is affecting some of the Democratic 2020 candidates. It is noteworthy that Bernie Sanders has resisted calling for impeachment, and only over the weekend called for the opening of an impeachment inquiry. But Elizabeth Warren, who is doing her best to cannibalize his support and replace him as the most viable Democrat to Joe Biden’s left, has been outspoken in calling for impeachment. Score one for Warren — it’s smart politics, and she is unlikely to suffer any negative consequences. After she wins the nomination, she can simply back off, arguing that it’s too late to impeach at that point and now it’s easier to remove Trump in the coming election.

Impeachment grounds: So, what is the legal or moral case for impeaching President Trump? Certainly not that he participated in a conspiracy or colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. For all the arguments over the Mueller report and Attorney General William Barr’s summary thereof, no one can credibly claim that he spoke falsely in stating that Mueller found no evidence of collusion. There was no collusion — it was always a kooky conspiracy theory ill-fitted to left-wing voters who were not very concerned about Russian aggression prior to 2016.

The status of potential obstruction of justice charges is more complicated. But it should not go unnoticed that Mueller gave his blessing to Barr’s description of how that decision was made — in “good faith.” Barr was not covering up Mueller’s real conclusions, at least not according to Mueller.

And as if to back that up, Mueller has announced he will not testify to anything beyond what’s already in his report. In other words, despite what Democrats have maintained ever since the report came out, there is no secret or esoteric meaning behind Mueller’s written conclusions or evaluations. The entire report can all be taken purely at face value.

On its face, Mueller’s report certainly does not bar the possibility that Congress could impeach. But the report also doesn’t contain anything suggesting that impeachment is required, just, fitting, or likely to succeed.

With respect to the possibility of executive branch prosecution for obstruction of justice, the chances would be fairly slim. If we accept one particular interpretation of the obstruction of justice statute — an arguably tendentious and hard-to-prove definition that discounts Trump’s intention (or lack thereof) to violate the law — then it is possible to imagine such a case being brought. But some legal commentators have pointed out that Trump’s intentions in issuing certain angry tweets and even in firing James Comey would be too difficult to prove. As both Mueller and Barr noted, many of Trump’s controversial actions could have been explained away based on his personal anger at being investigated, rather than based on some deliberate decision to prevent justice from being done. (Remember, all it would take here is reasonable doubt.)

Now if an obstruction of justice prosecution is unlikely to succeed, an impeachment on those grounds would be even less likely to succeed. First of all, obstruction is a mere process crime. Cover-ups are worse than crimes, yes, but that statement applies when there are crimes to begin with. This is not such a case.

The Republican Senate is not going to impeach Trump for obstructing justice, especially barring indisputable evidence of an underlying crime. Even the Democratic House would not be a sure thing. In addition to the House leadership, there is a reasonably large number of Democrats representing moderate or even conservative districts who would all but guarantee the end of their careers if they voted to impeach.

In short, don’t expect an impeachment — especially not after Mueller’s comments. There is no hidden or secret evidence to justify it, and the partisan pressures against it — both from Trump’s fellow Republicans and from Democratic leaders with a lot to lose — are simply too great.

Governor 2019

Louisiana: Don’t count out the pro-life Democrat just yet.

Yes, they’re an endangered species, but in signing a “heartbeat bill” limiting abortions, Gov. John Bel Edwards, D, defuses an issue that has doomed many other Democratic politicians in recent years. Louisiana is a state that frequently bucks national political trends, and in this case the state’s Democratic Party is going where no other state party is going at the moment.

Although this does not guarantee Edwards’ re-election this year, it certainly removes a big obstacle and makes Republicans’ task that much more complicated.