Australian Outlook

In this section

Mueller Report: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

25 Mar 2019
By Dr Gorana Grgic
US President Trump participates in swearing-in of William Barr as the Attorney-General by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on 14 February 2019. Photo: Tia Dufour/US Department of Justice

The news that special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections and potential collusion with the Trump campaign sent Washington and the world into a frenzy. Somewhat ironically, even as the full report remains undisclosed, the post-Mueller era will see each side proceed with doing what they probably would have done anyway as the 2020 presidential election edges closer.

After 22 months of investigation, more than US $25 million spent, 34 people charged with crimes and five of President Donald Trump’s business associates and campaign staffers having pleaded guilty, the news that the special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his probe sent Washington and the world into frenzied excitement. The reactions to the special counsel’s conclusion that there would not be any further indictments spotlighted the divide in the US polity – for some, this was shocking and utterly unexpected, while for others it was the proof of what they saw as a politically motivated hit job. After the report made its way to the attorney general’s desk for editing, the digested version stated there was insufficient evidence to conclude the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Moreover, while there are elements of presidential conduct that could point to tampering with the course of the investigation, that wasn’t enough to bring about charges of obstruction of justice.

In brief, for those who were expecting that Mueller’s report, or at least what has been published so far, would deliver an unequivocal verdict of President Trump’s conduct, the news has been anticlimactic in the least. On the other hand, the president and his associates have seized the opportunity to declare this a victory and have been doubling down on their verbal attacks against the Democrats and the media to the point of threatening prosecution. Moreover, given that the full report still hasn’t been made public, it is proving to be a source of contention as an overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats demand to see the report in order to conclude for themselves the extent of the president’s wrongdoing.

Between the legal interpretation and political optics

Herein lies the crux of the problem – the Mueller-led investigation was envisaged primarily as a legal endeavour that sought to determine whether the president and/or his team committed crimes in the way they interacted with various representatives of the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign and thereafter. The special counsel concluded that it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that such activities indeed occurred. However, if interpreted politically, the question becomes much more complex and damning for the president. Namely, just because what went on wasn’t strictly illegal, it doesn’t make it right.

On the obstruction of justice count, even Attorney General William Barr, who was a vocal opponent of the special probe before assuming the top office at the Department of Justice, had to concede the evidence gathered leaves a cloud of suspicion. However, given there was no collusion charge in the first place, the Attorney General’s stance is that obstruction of justice would be a case that would be hard to pursue. Again, the discrepancy between the legal interpretation and political optics is quite glaring. There is no denying the president publicly stated he fired the FBI director James Comey for his involvement in the Russia probe. Yet, this is precisely what the president and his allies have referred to as an exercise of presidential power expressed in the ability to fire and hire executive branch officials, so in that sense, it wouldn’t constitute an obstruction of justice.

The post-Mueller era begins

There is no doubt the conclusion of the special counsel’s probe injected wind into the president’s sails, particularly as he ramps up his re-election campaign. Symbolically, this was the one legal fight he absolutely needed to win to be able to continue rallying the Republican party behind him. Yet, the investigation opened up a number of different cases which are looking into other alleged misdeeds the president committed before he stepped into the White House, as well as those who were close to him. Equally, there is no lack of efforts to pursue the case of emoluments clause breach, which alleges President Trump has benefited from payments made by foreign entities.

This is more than enough grounds for the Democrats to continue their oversight and investigations in the House of Representatives, where they hold a clear majority. Therefore, we can expect to see more pressure exerted on the Justice Department to release the full report, as well as more vigorous committee investigations. At the same time, even before the special counsel’s investigation concluded, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a clear message that under her helm Democrats’ strategy to check the presidential power will not involve impeachment, despite what some of her party colleagues in the Congress might be calling for. In her mind, the 2018 midterms showed that Democrats owe their success more to fighting to preserve and expand vital parts of the Obama legacy such as the Affordable Healthcare Act, rather than focusing on the various segments of the president’s legal saga.

No catharsis and politics as usual

Counterfactually, had the special counsel’s report delivered a different conclusion, it is highly unlikely it would have brought a catharsis. It would have opened a whole different can of worms regarding the potential impeachment, making the political climate even more toxic. Either way, despite the costs of the investigation, which should be measured more in terms of the distraction and forgone policymaking bandwidth that could have been directed towards burning domestic issues such as climate change, infrastructure or inequality, it was absolutely necessary that it ran its course. In an era in which trust in institutions continues to hit record lows, the office of the special counsel stood out as immune to political pressure.

Finally, the one indisputable finding from the Mueller report is that of Russian interference in the course of the 2016 elections. Yet, amidst all the politicking, that is the part being least discussed and with modest indication of the measures that will be taken to ensure the integrity of future elections. Somewhat ironically, the post-Mueller era will see each side proceed with doing what it probably would have done anyway given the looming 2020 presidential election. President Trump is still likely to play the card of having been a victim of political persecution, while Democratic contenders will try to avoid engaging the president directly and set the agenda on issues that have proven to win votes.

Dr Gorana Grgic is a jointly appointed lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Harvard Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.