Mueller changed ev­ery­thing

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

From now on, the Trump-russia af­fair -- the in­ves­ti­ga­tion that dom­i­nated the first years of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency -- will be di­vided into two parts: be­fore and af­ter the re­lease of Robert Mueller’s re­port. Be­fore the spe­cial coun­sel’s find­ings were made pub­lic last month, the pres­i­dent’s ad­ver­saries were on the of­fen­sive. Now, they are play­ing de­fense.

The change is due to one sim­ple fact: Mueller could not es­tab­lish that there was a con­spir­acy or co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Russia and the Trump cam­paign to fix the 2016 elec­tion. The spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice in­ter­viewed 500 wit­nesses, is­sued 2,800 sub­poe­nas, ex­e­cuted nearly 500 search-and-seizure war­rants and ob­tained nearly 300 records of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and still could not es­tab­lish the one thing that mat­tered most in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

With­out a judg­ment that a con­spir­acy

-- or col­lu­sion, in the pop­u­lar phras­ing -- took place, ev­ery­thing else in the Trump-russia af­fair be­gan to shrink in sig­nif­i­cance.

In par­tic­u­lar, al­le­ga­tions that the pres­i­dent ob­structed jus­tice to cover up a con­spir­acy were trans­formed into al­le­ga­tions that he ob­structed an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a crime that pros­e­cu­tors could not say ac­tu­ally oc­curred. Al­though it is legally possible to pur­sue an ob­struc­tion case with­out an un­der­ly­ing crime, a crit­i­cal el­e­ment of ob­struc­tion -- knowl­edge of guilt -- dis­ap­peared the mo­ment Mueller’s re­port was re­leased.

Of course, TV talk­ing heads are still ar­gu­ing over ob­struc­tion. But with the re­port’s re­lease, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion moved from the le­gal realm to the political realm. And in the political realm, the pres­i­dent has a sim­ple and ef­fec­tive case to make to the 99.6 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who are not lawyers: “They say I ob­structed an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into some­thing that didn’t hap­pen? And they want to im­peach me for that?”

The ground has shifted in the month since the re­port be­came pub­lic. Be­fore the re­lease, many Democrats adopted a “wait for Mueller” stance, bas­ing their an­titrump strat­egy on the hope that Mueller would find the much-an­tic­i­pated con­spir­acy.

Then Mueller did not de­liver. And not only that -- Mueller’s re­port stretched to 448 pages, with long stretches of minu­tiae and ar­cane le­gal ar­gu­ment that the pub­lic would never read. Democrats searched for a way to con­vince Amer­i­cans that the pres­i­dent was still guilty of some­thing se­ri­ous.

They de­vised a plan to turn the Mueller re­port into a TV show, ac­ces­si­ble to mil­lions of view­ers who have not read even a page of the re­port it­self. They would call key wit­nesses to give dra­matic tes­ti­mony in tele­vised hear­ings that would build sup­port for possible im­peach­ment.

At the same time, they would in­sist that At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr, who has al­lowed top law­mak­ers to see the full Mueller re­port with the ex­cep­tion of a small amount of grand jury ma­te­rial, was hiding some­thing, and that the hid­den ma­te­rial might re­veal pres­i­den­tial wrong­do­ing.

So far, the strat­egy has not worked. The White House, which pro­vided Mueller tes­ti­mony and doc­u­ments that might eas­ily have been with­held as priv­i­leged, has not been so forth­com­ing with Congress. We gave the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tor -- Mueller -- what he needed, the White House said, but we are not ob­li­gated to do the same for Congress.

The dis­pute could take a long time to set­tle.

In the mean­time, House Democrats have been re­duced to stunts to try to grab the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion. At the Capi­tol re­cently, they en­listed Hol­ly­wood star John Cu­sack to take part in a pub­lic read­ing of the en­tire Mueller re­port -- it took 12 hours -- as C-SPAN cam­eras rolled. The event did not ex­actly cap­ti­vate the na­tion.

Now, Repub­li­cans have turned the ta­bles on Democrats by pump­ing new en­ergy into their long-held de­sire to “in­ves­ti­gate the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Barr, who set off enor­mous con­tro­versy with his state­ment that “spy­ing did oc­cur” against the Trump cam­paign, has taken up the cause, as­sign­ing U.S. At­tor­ney John Durham to look into the ori­gins of the probe.

An­tic­i­pa­tion is also build­ing for the re­lease of Jus­tice Depart­ment In­spec­tor Gen­eral Michael Horowitz’s re­port on the depart­ment’s han­dling of the case. It is prob­a­bly not a co­in­ci­dence that some Obama-era in­tel­li­gence fig­ures are now point­ing fin­gers at each other over their reliance on the so-called Steele dossier, a col­lec­tion of un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions against the pres­i­dent com­piled by a for­mer Bri­tish spy on be­half of the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign.

None of this would have hap­pened with­out the Mueller re­port’s con­clu­sion that the evidence did not es­tab­lish con­spir­acy or co­or­di­na­tion. If Democrats could still claim that Trump and Russia con­spired in 2016, they would still have the up­per hand. But af­ter Mueller, that claim is no longer possible, and Demo­cratic hopes are dwin­dling.

•••

By­ron York is chief political cor­re­spon­dent for

The Washington Ex­am­iner.

BY­RON YORK

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