The fact that Russian actors engaged in attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is not a matter of debate. What has been up to debate since the summer of 2016 is to what degree Donald Trump and his campaign coordinated with Russia to improve his chances of being elected. Robert Mueller was appointed in May of 2017 to investigate just this. His report, which was released last Thursday, indicates that, at least for the short term, Trump is secure in his office.
Although Congress has the option to continue to investigate Trump and the election interference, they would be unwise to do so. Mueller’s investigation has polarized America for much of Trump’s term in office, and if Democrats want to win the White House in 2020, they should focus on uniting Americans against Trump’s lack of efficacy as president.
For nearly two years, America waited with bated breath for the release of the Mueller report. Every few weeks, a new indictment of someone related to the Trump campaign came out, although the actual charges were rarely related to the campaign itself, and the suspense regarding the final report would grow.
On March 22, the final 448-page report was sent to Attorney General William Barr. On March 24, Barr sent a letter to Congress that detailed his interpretations of the report. According to Barr, the report didn’t actually say much of anything. The letter confirmed that Russia did indeed engage in attempts to influence the election, not exactly a surprising finding.
The report, however, said that investigators did not find sufficient evidence to pursue charges against Trump or his campaign on allegations of a conspiracy to influence the election. On the allegations of Trump’s obstruction of the investigation, Barr stated that the report had left it up to the Attorney General to decide on charges because the report did not reach a conclusion. Barr said that he had ultimately declined to pursue charges.
When the actual redacted version of the report was released to the public last Thursday, the contents were more or less in line with what Barr had stated in his letter, at least with regards to the short-term effects that the report will have. Technically speaking, just because Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign does not mean that one didn’t exist. The decision to not pursue charges based on obstruction of justice was based on a somewhat controversial legal principle that a sitting president cannot be indicted through the justice system for any crime, but must be impeached first. This leaves open the possibility that Trump could be indicted after leaving office. That is somewhat unlikely given the principle of not pursuing charges against political rivals, assuming Trump is followed by a Democrat. But it also means that Congress could pursue charges of impeachment.
Ultimately, nothing in Mueller’s report was particularly surprising. Prior to the actual release of the report, here were constant information leaks regarding interactions between Russian representatives and members of the Trump campaign. One of the most prominent of these was a meeting in June 2016 between Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a number of Russian lobbyists who supposedly had “dirt” on the Clinton campaign. There was no doubt that there were interactions between representatives of the Russian government and members of Trump campaign. But according to Mueller, no interactions rose to the level of conspiracy, which requires malicious intent and in general is a very high legal standard, both for individuals and for the campaign as a whole.
Trump also rather publicly engaged in actions that could be considered “obstruction of justice.” He publicly called for the firings of officials who were responsible for his investigation, including FBI director James Comey, who he ultimately fired, and Mueller himself. He also directed White House counsel Don McGahn to lie to Mueller about Trump having tried to fire Mueller. But there is little evidence that he actually tried to get individuals to lie about interactions between his campaign and Russia. Indeed, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, testified that Trump didn’t actually direct anyone to lie about this. Part of what makes this all confusing is the fact that Mueller didn’t actually find that Trump committed the crime of conspiracy, so what exactly he was obstructing is unclear. Actually, one of the more amusing parts of the report was the claim that Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice failed in many cases because those that he ordered to engage in obstructive acts simply did not follow his orders. Mueller ultimately stated that Congress was free to pursue obstruction charges through the process of impeachment.
The real question is if congressional Democrats should choose to pursue impeachment of Trump. Ultimately I believe they should not. For more than two years, the Mueller investigation has winded on and at this point America has grown tired of these investigations. According to a Huffington Post poll taken right after the release of the Mueller report, only one percent of Trump voters in 2016 believed the report made him unfit to be president, while 98% of Clinton voters thought the report was damaging. Ultimately, Mueller’s report did not change minds. Any congressional investigation, especially more than three years after the election, is unlikely to have any more of an effect.
In addition, any impeachment proceedings will almost certainly fail. While Trump will likely be impeached due to Democrats’ majority in the House, there is little chance that he will be convicted in the Senate as conviction requires a two-thirds majority. Currently Republicans control the Senate, and they would be very unlikely to vote for Trump’s conviction. Over the last forty years, no party has held a two-thirds majority of Senate seats, and an outright two-thirds majority for Democrats would likely be necessary to actually convict Trump. Two American presidents have been impeached, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, but neither was convicted.
All such congressional proceedings will likely do is give Trump more ammunition with which to attack his Democratic opponents, the media, and reinvigorate his base as he calls out any congressional investigation as a witch hunt. It is also questionable whether obstruction of justice rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional requirement for impeachment. Clinton was impeached on an obstruction of justice charge, but that accompanied a charge of lying to Congress. And Clinton’s impeachment was one of the more absurd episodes in American politics as the perjury charge was based on his personal life.
There are many more important issues that Democrats should be focusing on for the 2020 election. The best appeal to those who voted for Trump in 2016 is simply to point to the fact that his economic policies have not been effective. Trump’s promises to “bring back coal” in 2016 have not had any effect on the coal industry. Wage growth has slowed down since he assumed the presidency. His 2017 tax cuts have had nowhere near the effect that he claimed they would. He has not proposed any free market alternatives to Obamacare in spite of repealing the law’s individual mandate, thus basically removing its authority by eliminating penalties for not having insurance. Admittedly, Democrats are unlikely to suggest any free market solutions either. Trump is a historically unpopular president who has no signature moment in office. He is a weak candidate, but continuing to pursue the Russia collusion angle is not an effective path to victory. It’s time to move on.