When the summary of the Mueller Report into Russian influence over the 2016 US presidential election was issued last month, it looked like Democrats had run out of ammo they needed to bring down President Trump.
Today, they are restocking their arsenal.
The release of the Mueller investigation report – even with its redactions– buoyed Democrats who had pressed for its release in the weeks since US Attorney General William Barr issued his anodyne, four-page summary.
With its vivid accounts of Russian contacts and Mr Trump’s desperate attempts to derail the investigation, it seemed to matter little that Mr Trump had escaped any strict legal jeopardy (We’ll get to Mr Barr a bit later).
If the report’s release determined anything, it is that the case against Mr Trump has finally moved from the legal (where the idea of prosecuting a sitting president was always dicey) to the political, where Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, can continue to investigate Mr Trump right through the 2020 election season.
Lawyers spent hours parsing the report on TV, debating whether Mr Barr had acted judiciously or just as a hack. But by midday US time, it was clear that the real action was moving to the political theatre, where both sides get to appeal to their partisans without ever having to say “case closed.”
There’s plenty to chew on. Mr Mueller’s report lists 10 separate instances of Mr Trump trying to stop the special prosecutor’s investigation. He encouraged witnesses to refuse to cooperate. He tried to force his White House counsel to fire Mr Mueller, and then urged him to lie about his demand. He tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “unrecuse” himself from overseeing Mr Mueller’s work.
“Lawful, but awful,” one TV wag put it.
It all had a very Nixonian vibe, reminiscent of the paranoid, foul-mouthed rantings of Richard Nixon caught on tape and revealed to the country during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
“Why do you take so many notes?” Mr Trump demanded of his embattled counsel, Don McGahn, the man he wanted to fire Mr Mueller. Mr McGahn balked at Trump’s demanded dismissal, threatening to resign before Mr Trump backed off.
Mr Trump comes off the like the John Dean to Mr Trump’s Nixon, who’s left slumped in an Oval Office chair, moaning, “I’m f—-d” when he learns of Mr Mueller’s appointment.
Not for the first time in his sleazy career, Mr Trump has his handlers and factotums to thank for keeping him in office, if not under indictment. Their refusal to carry out his demands, the report indicates, is the only thing that kept him from facing possible criminal charges.
As for Mr Barr, the impression that he was a seasoned “institutionalist”, who would operate independent of the White House, evaporated yesterday. In a bizarre news conference held before the report was released, Mr Barr tried to explain why Mr Trump might have, you know, acted a bit out of line by trying to fire the people investigating him.
“The President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fuelled by illegal leaks,” Mr Barr declared by way of explaining why he decided not to pursue charges. He sounded more like the President’s defence attorney than the chief legal officer of the United States.
Who knew peevishness and frustration were a way to avoid criminal charges? That would come as news to the US’s more than one million incarcerated.
Mueller’s report is clear in pointing to Congress’ responsibility in investigating obstruction of justice by the President.
It is our job as outlined in Article 1, Sec 2, Clause 5 of the US Constitution.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 18, 2019
The result of such bald political protection has now empowered House Democrats, particularly House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, to examine every charge of Mr Trump’s strong-arming.
Impeachment remains highly unlikely given Republican Senate control, but the idea that the Mueller investigation was “done” ended yesterday.
In fact, it may be the only thing both sides can agree on.
Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a current contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America