The release of the redacted Mueller report spawned a gaggle of stories that each deserves extended treatment; the willingness of Bill Barr to lie on Trump’s behalf in acceptance of his role as Trump’s protector, rather than Attorney General of the United States; the detailed account of Russia’s assault on our elections; the Trump campaign’s embrace of the Russian assault and its failure to mention anything about it to the FBI or other authorities; the unfathomable culture of lying and deceit that permeated the Trump campaign and his White House; the continual elevation of self interest above country; and the extraordinary efforts of a desperate president to kill the investigation into all of this. But the country now faces one overriding question: Where do we go from here?
Trump and his supporters are working hard to spin the conclusion of the Mueller investigation as a victory, despite all the criminal charges, pleas, and convictions, and despite the 400-page narrative that paints a devastating portrait of Trump and the band of incompetent dissemblers and grifters with whom he surrounded himself. Trump’s gamble is that people will accept the headlines he churns out with support from Barr, congressional supporters, and Fox News. Indeed, few people are likely to wade through the details of the report.
A larger lesson arising from the details of this episode is that Trump is a president desperate to destroy all checks on his authority. Without the threat arising from the Mueller investigation hanging over his head, he will feel unleashed. The signs are already there.
He assaulted his attorney general until he got the protector he had wanted from the start. While it was too late by then to derail Mueller, his protector, Barr, dulled the impact of the report in his initial summary letter by overriding Mueller’s obstruction conclusion and misrepresenting that Mueller had found no collusion. Trump ran with Barr’s gift of no collusion-no obstruction talking points. He repeated his performance at his inappropriate pre-release press conference. A major question for Congress now is how far Barr may go in undermining the fourteen prosecutions that Mueller spun off to U.S. Attorney’s offices, twelve of which remain secret.
Trump and his administration have demonstrated their intent to resist congressional oversight, including requests for information and subpoenas. Congressional oversight is essential to the proper functioning of our constitutional system and, in particular, to checking presidential power. It is the way Congress ensures that the laws it passes are enforced properly and the money it appropriates is being spent as intended. The Supreme Court has held that the scope of congressional oversight is broad, encompassing any matter that falls within Congress’s power to legislate. It is a principal component in the system of checks and balances that makes our government of separated powers work.
Trump wants none of it. It opens his personal conduct to scrutiny. It also restrains his ability to govern by whim, spite and personal desire. Having to answer to Congress curtails his authoritarian, strongman instincts. It impairs his ability to pursue his radical agenda.
If Trump stonewalls Congress, conflicts over subpoenas are likely to go to the courts. Trump, of course, has installed judges at a record pace, many of whom are unqualified and almost all of whom are ideological extremists who are likely to enable Trump’s resistance to oversight. Trump’s remaking of the courts – nearly a fifth of judges have been appointed by Trump – will dilute the ability of courts to restrain his power across the board.
The prospect of Trump unleashed is a principal reason why Congress must move rapidly toward impeachment. Congress must reimpose the threat of accountability. Whether or not impeachment results in his removal from office, the process will enlighten the public, which is unlikely to read Mueller’s report, but will watch with rapt attention as key participants in the Trump campaign and administration testify at televised hearings. That enlightenment may change the dynamic surrounding his removal. Admittedly, the power of Fox News and extreme partisanship pose high hurdles, but failure even to try will be an abdication of Congress’s constitutional responsibility to hold an unfit president accountable.
At this stage, the very real question looms; if Congress does not impeach Trump, is there anything left of the impeachment power? The Mueller report demonstrates that Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct that is far worse than anything Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton dared attempt.
Now that the report is out, Democratic fears of impeachment appear overblown. They misread history. The failed Republican effort to remove Clinton was followed by the election of George W. Bush. The effort to remove Trump is thoroughly consistent with – and indeed may even facilitate — a Democratic victory in the 2020 presidential contest. Indeed, failure to move toward impeachment runs the risk of alienating Democrats’ base and making the party look weak and indecisive.
Uncertain Democrats should note the chorus of fearful Republican pundits warning Democrats that they would be foolhardy to impeach Trump. Remember, they do not have your best interests in mind.
Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.