Sunday, May 26, 2019 | ePaper

Still A Big Question

Russian Interference In The US Election

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Rayhan Ahmed Topader :
Donald Trump has ominously threatened to turn the tables on those involved in the Mueller investigation, accusing them of treason and vowing to bring them to justice. After the department of justice made public a lightly redacted version of the special counsel's report, that found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia but did not exonerate him on the issue of obstruction of justice, Mr Trump let fly a succession of angry tweets. One of them contained a mild curse. The biggest question heading into recently is what Mueller says about obstruction. That's because this is the crime Mueller chose not to expressly clear the president of, according to Barr's letter. That's unusual. Generally speaking, prosecutors either decide to charge or not, and leave it at that.
But Mueller decided to add that qualifier. After making a 'thorough factual investigation' into these matters, the Special Counsel considered whether to evaluate the conduct under Department standards governing prosecution and declination decisions but ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement. The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion one way or the other as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as 'difficult issues' of law and fact concerning whether the President's actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.
The Special Counsel states that 'while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him. Ever since the Barr letter came out, more than a few smart people have pointed to Barr's and Mueller's specific choice of words when it comes to interactions between the Trump campaign and Russia. Specifically, they never use the words collusion and instead say there was no conspiracy or coordination. The Post's Philip Bump wrote a couple of weeks back about how these distinctions could be significant. Essentially, it could still mean that there was some evidence of collusion more broadly - as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., continues to argue but that it didn't rise to the level of actually coordinating and conspiring.
Perhaps information was shared and assistance was encouraged, but there was no actual, specific agreement. It's Mueller Eve, and we're presumably about to learn a bunch of new details about interactions involving President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, as well as Trump's actions vis-a-vis the investigation. What we know thus far importantly is that Robert Mueller didn't accuse Trump of either conspiracy with Russia or obstruction of justice. Attorney General William Barr has come under fire for his letter summarising the Mueller report's principal conclusions and personally clearing Trump of obstruction. But assuming he accurately relayed that top-line finding, that's still hugely significant. Trump's base was probably never going to desert him and GOP members of Congress were never going to support impeaching him without a real smoking gun. It seems Mueller didn't find one, and that matters. But that doesn't mean Trump will get off scot-free.  
While Barr's letter has been criticised for being too friendly for Trump, including by members of Mueller's team, there's a real argument to be made that it set the unhelpful expectation that Mueller had somehow exonerated Trump. And despite his own claims of total exoneration, Trump has continued eviscerating the Mueller investigation. That suggests that he's girding for some potentially bad news. Government watchdog Larry Noble summarised this point nicely: Defining coordination as requiring an agreement between the parties creates a massive hole in the wall against foreign corruption of our elections.
For example, does Mueller believe that, unless he can prove there was an agreement to do so, it is not illegal for the campaign to provide information to the Russians, such as polling data, to help them target their ads supporting Trump and opposing Hillary Clinton? What if there were meetings between Trump campaign officials and agents of the Russian government where information about the Russian and Trump strategies to get him elected were exchanged, discussed, and its use encouraged, but there is no proof of an agreement as to what specific activity will take place? Criminality matters, and the fact that Mueller appears to have found no crime here matters greatly.
But what if he found something that could be read as amounting to the broader concept of "collusion" with a hostile foreign government? That could still be politically problematic, depending upon how serious and how clear the evidence. Mueller might say it really wasn't even a close call and that's why he made the call on this one, even as he didn't on obstruction. One person close to the White House said there is breakdown-level anxiety among some current and former staffers who cooperated with the investigation at the direction of Trump's legal team at the time. There is also concern that new facts in the report could be disclosed that do not reflect favourably on the president, two people familiar with the discussions said.
It will be a net plus or minus 100-page of the more than 300-page report. This White House has leaked like a sieve, in part because people inside it and the administration seems to be so concerned about how unwieldy and unmoored the entire operation is. But it's one thing to make the decision to voluntarily leak to a journalist; it's another to be compelled to tell the truth to investigators.
To the extent this provides detail about the inner workings of the White House and what those around Trump truly think about him and various actions that have been taken, that could paint a very unsavory picture. While Trump might not be accused of crimes, what if it becomes clear that those around him were attesting to the reported chaos or describing his actions in details that reflect poorly on the commander in chief? What if former White House counsel Donald McGahn's 30 hours of interviews prove truly embarrassing for Trump, in some way?
Stephen Bannon's reportedly said of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer: Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, and it happen to think it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately. What if others say similar things? And what happens when people are cornered by Trump or other White House staff as having been the sources of derogatory information. The White House has already been a place rife with competing factions willing to throw others under the bus; a juicy Mueller report could put that internal feuding on turbo.
The question is why Mueller chose this path. Did he do it because the evidence was compelling but perhaps not conclusive because he believes the actions could be obstructed but that he simply couldn't decide or did he just decided to punt on the question because Justice Department guidelines say Trump can't be indicted anyway? Assuming Mueller expounds upon his reasoning here, that will be the key. The former would mean the evidence could be pretty damning, but perhaps not damning enough including to cost Trump much politically.
(Rayhan Ahmed Topader writes from London)

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