Special counsel Robert Mueller’s challenge to Congress

Special Counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington on May 29, 2019.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington on May 29, 2019. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Amid a circus of partisan warfare surrounding the report on the Russia meddling probe, special counsel Robert Mueller finally stepped into the big tent Wednesday to refocus our attention.

A center ring spotlight was badly needed.

Most Americans have not read Mueller’s report. They have only heard competing and frequently misleading interpretations of it — often from President Donald Trump and his supporters. Mueller, in his first public comments since being named special counsel two years ago, advised all of us to ignore the noise. And to take action.

He made clear the next steps belong to Congress. It must exercise its oversight role.

Mueller’s remarks were short but emphatic. He started and ended with a warning about the report’s principal conclusion — that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. This, Mueller said, “deserves the attention of every American.”

Mueller described a systemic meddling campaign and called it the central allegation of his office’s many indictments. He implicated the Russian military and a private Russian entity, and said their actions were designed to hurt candidate Hillary Clinton.

Incredibly, there is still no urgency in the White House about addressing foreign involvement in our elections. Most notably, Trump himself has ignored that finding. The president has not accepted unequivocally that Russia meddled. Nor has he called out President Vladimir Putin and his cyberagents. Perhaps Trump thinks doing so would taint the legitimacy of his election. But elevating his personal grievance over his sworn duty to protect and defend the country is repugnant, and the failure to protect our democratic process might itself be an impeachable offense.

Constrained by Trump’s willful inertia, our nation has not fought back hard enough against Russia’s meddling. Congress should use Mueller’s road map to hold joint hearings on how best to stop it from happening again. It’s time to get tougher with social media platforms and force them to more quickly shut down fake accounts that divide and misinform American voters. Facebook enabled much of Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign.

Clearly, the federal government must send more money to state boards of elections to help safeguard their electoral systems from hacking. States, too, must act to ensure the security of their systems.

The consequences of failure are chilling. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed that Russian hackers breached voter registration systems in two Florida counties in 2016. One’s imagination doesn’t have to wander far to remember that the 2000 presidential election turned on the incredibly close tally in Florida, and conclude that being able to affect results in two districts could be enough to swing an entire election and destabilize the nation.

Mueller also made some long-overdue clarifications surrounding the high-test question of whether Trump obstructed the special counsel’s probe. His words differed little, but significantly, from those in his report. And hearing Mueller speak them made them more powerful. Most notably, Mueller said that “if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

In his statement, it was important that Mueller clarified why he investigated Trump’s behavior. “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said. Mueller explained that he was barred by Department of Justice guidelines from accusing a sitting president of a crime; only Congress via impeachment could do that.

He asserted that as he returns to private life, this political process will not involve him. His report has the information Congress needs to decide whether it will accept the mantle of its responsibility.

Can the nation withstand the storm of impeachment? It’s a difficult question. Our country is fragile. Our bindings are frayed, our norms stretched to the point of breaking.

As of now, the House of Representatives and Speaker Nancy Pelosi don’t have a strategic plan for providing coherent oversight. House Democrats chase their tails in response to Trump’s defiance of their constitutional oversight role. The president flaunts his refusal to cooperate with subpoenas and requests for witnesses or information. This is a dangerous precedent that the House must aggressively rebuff in the courts. Congress has a legitimate legislative interest in issues fundamental to the probe.

The special counsel law, for example, must be further girded from partisan interference. Mueller was not fired by Trump only thanks to interference by his own aides and Justice Department officials. The constitutional question of whether a sitting president can be indicted must be re-examined. Mueller was bound by a policy opinion hastily written during Watergate that morphed into dogma. What else was learned in the Russia probe that may warrant a change in Justice Department policy?

After Mueller finished speaking, Trump tried to shoot him down. There was “insufficient evidence,” Trump tweeted, and therefore he is innocent and the case is closed.

No, it’s not.

Mueller might be done, but his work remains a clarion call to Congress to finish the process.