Last chance for impeachment: Next week Robert Mueller will shape history — but how?

Pelosi's Congress will finally drag Mueller to the Hill next week. It's a big moment in the quest to save democracy

Published July 16, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi; Robert Mueller (AP/Getty/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi; Robert Mueller (AP/Getty/Salon)

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When Robert Mueller comes to Congress next week to field questions — "answer" is too optimistic — about what he learned in his investigation of Russia and Donald Trump, it’ll be his and our last chance to get it right; to inform the American people of the enormity of Trump’s offenses and our sacred duty to impeach him. If he doesn’t want to, or can’t be made to, we may all say, in unison with Mitch McConnell, “case closed” as all hope of impeachment will have died.

It seemed as if our chance had passed; that due to the misfeasance of Robert Mueller and some Democrats, impeachment was all but dead. Trump’s latest racist tantrum — his noxious series of tweets directed at four progressive Democratic congresswomen — revived it simply by reminding Congress that he is morally unfit to be president of the United States. He is the greatest proved liar in the history of American public life. He runs the most corrupt administration in the history of the American presidency. He helped rig one election and now invites the rigging of another. He not only admits to being a serial sexual predator, but brags about it. But all that we knew.

Now he has made clear, in the real kickoff off his 2020 reelection campaign, that he means to subject America to sixteen months of vicious, overtly racist screeds. Maybe he knows something we don’t; about what’s in Epstein’s files or his own tax returns. Maybe he read a poll. Whatever the reason, he’s a desperate man and before he steals another election or ignites a race war he must be stopped. As the smoke of the last few days clears, more and more people will see that Trump leaves us no choice. For the first time in his life, he has done his country a favor: he has put impeachment back on the table. Ten days from now, the die will be cast.

We’re arrived here for two reasons. One is that Mueller, without telling anyone, took it upon himself to limit the scope of his mandate in a way no one foresaw or even imagined. Having accepted the idea — enshrined not in the Constitution or a law or a Supreme Court ruling, but only in a department memo — that no president may be indicted while in office, not even under seal for later prosecution, Mueller decided it would be unfair to the president even to mention that he’d committed  multiple felonies. Till Mueller said it, no one, not even Bill Barr, had thought it.

The second reason is that Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic political and media establishments bungled their jobs from the first. That’s true not only of impeachment but of all matters pertaining to corruption. The media doesn’t know how to cover it; Congress doesn’t know how to investigate it; neither grasps its centrality to our politics or to the sad condition of our middle class, our democracy and our country.

National media corruption myopia continues to amaze. It took till the tail end of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s deceitful last press conference for a reporter to ask if anyone had influenced his otherwise inexplicable decision to drop an airtight case against a rich, politically connected sexual predator. Even that question was asked only about his higher-ups at the Justice Department when he was U.S. attorney in Miami. Acosta ignored it. No one followed up.

Trump’s vast corruption is enabled by the deference and ineptitude of his pursuers. What excuse is there for House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., waiting six months to subpoena Trump’s tax returns? Why didn’t House Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., subpoena Mueller rather than waste months arm-wrestling with him? Why does even Hope Hicks get to testify behind closed doors?

On impeachment, Democrats embarrass themselves by always talking tactics. Is the timing good? What do the polls say? How will it look if Senate Republicans acquit? They should stop telling people to read the Mueller report, which with appendices runs 700 pages and on the subject of collusion can be as coy and opaque as Mueller himself. It was Mueller’s job to explain it; when he didn’t do his job, it became their job.

It takes four months to impeach a president. In fact, that’s the most it’s ever taken. Bill Clinton’s took from an Oct. 8, 1998 House authorization to a Feb. 12, 1999 Senate acquittal, with a midterm election, Christmas, New Year’s and a four-day air strike on Iraq nestled in between. Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment took from May 9, 1974, to his resignation on Aug. 9. Andrew Johnson’s went from Feb. 24 to May 16 in 1868.

When Mueller’s report came out in April, the House had all the information it needed to impeach, and then some. Had it acted then, it could have conducted the longest presidential impeachment in American history and the Senate would be just finishing up now.  If it voted to impeach next week, the process would be finished by Thanksgiving. But that’s not how this House rolls, when it rolls at all.

Pelosi allies cite as a cautionary tale of Republican overreach in the Clinton impeachment, but their memories are as faulty as their logic. Early support for impeaching Clinton was a bit lower than support for impeaching Trump. Over the course of the proceedings it sank even lower, because most Americans don’t want to impeach a president for lying about an extramarital affair.

Republicans lost a few seats in the ensuing midterms, which followed by just four weeks, their vote to authorize an inquiry. They went ahead and impeached him anyway. No, they didn't come close to conviction in the Senate. But in the fateful election of 2000, they won the House and Senate and came close enough to winning the White House to steal it in the Supreme Court. That’s the real lesson of the Clinton impeachment: Republicans impeached on far flimsier grounds, despite far greater public disapproval, lost badly in the Senate and paid no price whatsoever.

Support for Nixon’s impeachment was initially lower than it is now for Trump’s. But the televised hearings were so lurid that by the time they were over, support for impeachment shot past 60%. Trump makes Nixon look like James Madison; his articles of impeachment would make Nixon’s read like a mild scolding. Trump’s hearings, done right, would be even more lurid; his whole life has been such a grift that just releasing his tax returns would probably kill him. If you’re looking for a precedent, look to Nixon, not Clinton.

Democrats have called Mueller’s report a "road map to impeachment," a reference to Leon Jaworski’s famous report to Congress on Watergate and to a lesser extent Kenneth Starr’s infamous document dump on Clinton. But road maps don’t come redacted. You don’t read them in closed session; you take them on the trip and share them with everyone in the car. Jaworski shared all he knew. Starr overshared. Jaworski took pains to enable impeachment, including seeking court permission to share grand jury testimony. Starr practically goaded Congress into impeaching Clinton. At every turn, the sphinx-like Mueller has done nearly the opposite.

From the moment he was appointed, Democrats made haste to lionize Robert Mueller. He earned their encomiums. He’s a true patriot who sacrificed for his country in peacetime and in war, and he’s a model public servant: meticulous, unflinching and, above all else, honest. I greatly admire him.

Democrats’ praise of Mueller was also tactical; when he delivered his report to the people, they wanted it to rest on the rock of his Cincinnatus-like reputation. The problems began when he delivered the report not to the people but to a highly partisan employee of the man he was hired to investigate. They were compounded when that man, Attorney General William Barr, began systematically lying about the contents of the report and Mueller spoke not one public word to refute him.

Stunned by the turn of events and fearing they’d be called hypocrites by Trump if they seemed to turn on Mueller, Democrats continued to lavish praise on him. On Wednesday they get their last chance to correct a fatally false narrative and replace it with a hard and inconvenient truth: Robert Mueller is a good man, but sadly for him and tragically for us, he botched his final assignment, and badly.

In its exposition of known facts, Mueller's report is as meticulous as the man. In all other regards it is profoundly flawed. First, there’s the hubris of Mueller deciding, all on his own, that a doctrine of his own concoction prevented him from completing what everyone understood to be his assignment: to determine whether Donald Trump had colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. At the very least, he should have leaked his notion before releasing his report, if only to avail himself of the thinking of others.

A second flaw is Mueller’s failure to interview two prime collusion suspects or extract any honest testimony from a third. Something we know about conspiracies: They tend to be small. It’s quite possible the only American parties to this one were Trump, his eldest son and his campaign manager, lying Paul Manafort, whose previous job had been subverting Ukraine’s democracy on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Mueller never even interviewed Donald Trump Jr., and slipped his father all the questions in advance. When Trump answered with a chorus of “I don’t recalls,” Mueller let the matter rest.

 The failure to conduct meaningful interviews of the likely principles to a plot to hijack an election is unacceptable. People say Mueller feared delay or even defeat if he went to court. As one who thinks our judicial system has been corrupted by ideology and partisanship, I share his concern. I still think he made the wrong call. In any case, he owes Congress and the American people an explanation.

The fatal flaw is how the report misconstrues campaign finance law. It is for this reason, even more than his failure to interview prime suspects, that Mueller fails to make a case for collusion as strong as his implicit case for obstruction. The idea that Manafort, who made a rich living rigging elections for Vladimir Putin, shared swing-state polling data with a Russian close to Putin merely to impress him is, on its face, preposterous. The law he broke was one he knows all too well.

Mueller never said "No collusion." In fact, he related many instances of it. He only said he couldn’t establish sufficient facts to charge a conspiracy under relevant statutes. Congress made it harder than it should be to establish criminal intent for campaign finance-related crimes, but not as hard as Mueller thinks. Nadler must ask him to explain his thinking. He must then ask his staff to explain their thinking. Later, he should ask campaign finance experts to explain the law.

Amid all his confusion, Mueller made two thoughts clear: Russia is destroying our democracy and if Trump is complicit, only Congress can stop him. With that, he washes his hands of us. If he isn’t quite Pilate, he’s no Leon Jaworski either. With democracy imperiled, he offers without comment a "road map" filled with unstated conclusions and blacked out pages. I hope he has an epiphany and does what his predecessor did: Tells us what he saw and gives us guidance.  If he can’t see his duty, I hope Democrats on the committee have the courage and clarity to help him see it.

It is a poor tactician who thinks only of tactics. The job of Pelosi and her caucus now is to focus on duty. If they do, I think they’ll be rewarded politically, but they must put that consideration aside, because other considerations so outweigh it.

First is the magnitude of the crimes. Altogether, the crimes of Johnson, Nixon and Clinton don’t equal Trump’s. He’s the most corrupt president in history. He plotted with a foreign power to steal an election, which meets most Americans’ definition of treason. He obstructs justice, which violates his oath of office. His incessant lies shred democracy’s very fabric. Loyalty to country, the rule of law and the truth aren’t just "norms." They are core values. We must defend them.

Second is our need for a public record of Trump’s crimes. When Pelosi says she’d rather see Trump jailed, she’s kicking the same can Mueller kicked to her. At least Mueller knew to whom he kicked it. For all Pelosi knows, a President Biden may decide bipartisanship means letting bygones be bygones. In an earlier column, I talked about the price we paid for our failure to investigate the lies that led to the Iraq War and the 2008 global financial meltdown. Deep down, we know if we fail to impeach, we may never know what happened, and that a democracy that can’t look itself in the eye may not be long for this world.

Most important is that these crimes are all ongoing. This isn’t Whitewater, a look back at a failed real estate deal. Our democracy is under siege. While Trump and Putin laugh out loud, our next election is being stolen right out from under us. If you say we can stop it without resort to impeachment, you must say how.

Mueller, Pelosi and Nadler all have choices to make. Within days of Mueller’s testimony, we’ll know how they made them. There’s still time to impeach. It’s risky, but not as risky as doing nothing. If this brazen racist kleptocrat steals the White House a second time, no one who shirked his duty will ever be forgiven. It’s our last chance.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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