(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Mueller's report is on the way — and Donald Trump's 2019 problems are just starting

Democrats take power on Capitol Hill this week: Donald Trump's team knows that means the walls are closing in


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Heather Digby Parton
January 2, 2019 3:35PM (UTC)

We are starting off the new year with a government shutdown and a president who mercilessly attacks Democrats and U.S. allies while issuing mash notes to authoritarian tyrants like Kim Jong-un -- and would-be tyrants like Brazil's new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.  One imagines that President Trump was happy to spend his holiday alone in the residence, tucked up in bed chattering to his friends on his unsecured iPhone, ordering up cheeseburgers at all hours, watching Fox and tweeting.  He seems to have enjoyed his White House staycation a great deal.

Starting tomorrow it's a whole new ballgame, however. For the first time since he assumed office, Trump will faced with a powerful foe: a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Right out of the gate, they're at loggerheads over the budget. Trump continues to demand money for his silly wall while the Democrats say they will reintroduce all the bills the Republicans agreed to pass before Trump reneged on the deals under pressure from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Republicans will then have the choice of whether to vote for their own bills and override Trump's veto or once again be his toadies. (I know where I'm placing my bet.)

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Even with a flurry of legislative activity and high drama from the White House, there's no getting around the fact that the Russia investigation is closing in and everyone is anxious to see what the special counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered. Betsy Woodruff at the Daily Beast published an informative overview of what we can expect from the White House in this next phase.

Woodruff's sources in Trumpworld tell her that if Mueller wants to submit a report to Congress they expect a complicated series of confrontations involving executive privilege, setting up a battle between the two branches with the judiciary refereeing the dispute. The main issue involves the extensive interviews with White House staffers that have been conducted over the past 18 months, which they claim were done within the executive branch (since Mueller is technically a Department of Justice employee) and cannot be shared with Congress or the public.

Relevant law states that the special counsel's report must first be approved by the Justice Department. Andrew McCarthy of National Review, an influential former prosecutor, told Woodruff that he believes that either Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker or likely incoming Attorney General William Barr (who has not yet been confirmed) would redact anything they deem to be privileged before turning it over to Congress.

This view is not held by everyone. Former White House counsel Bob Bauer told Woodruff that executive privilege can be waived and that Trump has already done so, both with his voluminous tweets on the subject and his own lawyers' letter to Mueller last January. Bauer said these actions leave "in tatters any belated attempt to resuscitate this claim.”

The real upshot is that the Trump team is clearly planning to run out the clock, hoping they can litigate Mueller's report for many months until they can start wringing their hands and clutching their pearls over the DOJ rule that no action can be taken in advance of an impending election. I expect they'll start counting that down in about six months.

Whether this plan works will depend upon the federal courts, which Mitch McConnell has been assiduously packing for the last two years. Of course the Supreme Court has two new justices who owe their seats to the man on whom they may sit in judgment someday soon. (And, no, they will not recuse themselves from any such cases. )

So who knows when or if we will ever see a Mueller report. But if the Trump team thinks that plan will shield their boy from impeachment they are sadly deluded. Russian infiltration and sabotage of the 2016 election and Trump's subsequent obstruction of justice are hardly the only potential high crimes and misdemeanors likely to be investigated by the new Congress.

The various sexual scandals involving payoffs to porn stars and harassment charges have nothing to do with Mueller and are certainly on the table. The Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal cases are specifically relevant since they concern campaign finance law violations. There's no executive privilege there. We can probably expect to see Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen in a big splashy hearing early in the new year. (Whether House Democrats will quiz Cohen about Russia matters probably depends upon whether Mueller gives the OK.)

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Then there's the fact that Trump administration appointees have already set records for corruption in the first two years of a presidency.  Chief of staff, Director of Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, FEMA director Brock Long, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt are all accused of various levels of illegal and unethical behavior. Don't be surprised to see some of them up on Capitol Hill testifying about their various misdeeds.

As we know from the seven years of investigations into Bill Clinton's $30,000 Arkansas real estate deal a decade before he came to Washington, Trump's business is certainly fair game. The New York Times report on his family's decades-long criminal tax fraud alone forms the basis of a serious probe into all of his business dealings. There are also suspected Mafia ties, money laundering, and dozens of different forms of financial and consumer fraud. The fact that he paid $25 million to settle with former customers of Trump University after he had been elected president would have immediately resulted in an independent counsel probe back in the days of that lapsed law.

Even more salient are the various scandals surrounding the Trump Foundation and current Trump Organization dealings. Since the president didn't divest himself of his holdings and has been accepting money from virtually anyone who wants to gain access or prop up his failing empire, he's opened himself and his company up to scrutiny. Considering that the Constitution expressly forbids the acceptance of such "emoluments," a congressional inquiry is more than appropriate.

Those are just off the top of my head. There are many more possibilities, which is scandalous in itself, and Congress has a constitutional obligation to look into them. If Mueller is able to submit his report and it contains damning information, no one will be surprised if that leads to an impeachment inquiry. But it's hardly the only grounds for doing so.

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Even if the Republican Senate refuses to take up the case -- as certainly seems likely -- laying out the scope of this administration's conspiracy, corruption and criminality for the American people to see may be the best chance we have of ensuring that such a person is never elected again.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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