The Justice Department announced that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has submitted his report to Attorney General William Barr. It’s been nearly two years in the making. Brennan Center President Michael Waldman, a former senior aide for President Bill Clinton and an expert on presidential power, discusses what could happen next.
Where do things stand now?
Michael Waldman: Here’s what we know without a doubt: A hostile foreign government systematically interfered in our electoral process to benefit one candidate, and that candidate is now president of the United States. It’s still shocking when you step back and think about it.
Regardless of what Mueller delivered to the attorney general today, he’s already told a very damning story. Guilty pleas and indictments released as part of the investigation so far show that President Trump was negotiating business deals in Russia well into the campaign and lying about it repeatedly. It’s clear, too, that top aides were not truthful about their dealings with Russia. Mueller also revealed that Trump essentially had a super PAC working on his behalf halfway across the world, from a building in St. Petersburg.
Barr has told Congress he could deliver a summary of Mueller’s conclusions as soon as the next few days, saying he was committed to “as much transparency as possible” in the process. He can’t just get away with limiting himself to the decision of whether to indict or not indict. Congress ultimately would get a lot of heat if that were the case. There are legal pitfalls now. If Mueller concluded the president can’t be indicted, and then the DOJ says it won’t release information about someone who hasn’t been charged, that’s a catch-22. If the White House is demanding the chance to see it before it’s released, it would be appalling if “executive privilege” were then used as a tool to block the report. Congress, ultimately, has felt public heat on this. That’s why the House voted unanimously for the full report to be released. If there’s even a whiff of a cover-up, there will be a roar of public outrage.
Why is this report important?
In some ways the report is important because, well, we’ve been waiting for it. Two years of investigation, indictments, convictions, and speculation. There’s an expectation that Mueller will be able to end the drama, as some other special prosecutors have done. But that may not be the case.
Mueller’s charge from the beginning was to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and determine what if any connections exist between Russia, the Trump campaign, and the Trump administration. That’s a much broader story than who broke what title of the U.S. criminal code. A lot of what happens next could depend on whether Mueller saw the report as an opportunity to educate the public about that — and how much of the report the attorney general releases to the public.
And the story of obstruction of justice is central to this. Trump’s actions may not have constituted a crime. They most certainly were an abuse of power. That’s exactly the kind of thing that Congress should expose.
Are there any unique challenges that the current political environment and president bring in terms of how the public will perceive the report?
For years, people have looked at Watergate and said, “What would happen now if there was a scandal like this?” Unfortunately, we’re finding out. Yes, there was partisanship back then. President Nixon’s Republican supporters defended him in Congress until just a few days before he resigned. But there was still widespread recognition that Watergate was a scandal, that it was bad, that it needed to be investigated.
Now we’ve got a much more polarized political environment, with isolated media universes. Conservatives talk to conservatives about the “witch hunt” and progressives follow every morsel of information. There’s no neutral arbiter saying, “Wow, this really is bad.”
What can Congress do that Mueller can’t?
Congress can tell this story in public. And in addition to criminal activity, they can focus on abuses of power and acts of disloyalty to the United States. However, they’re hindered by the fact that the White House can resist lawmakers’ subpoenas more than ones from a grand jury.
If the administration refuses to cooperate, Congress can hold officials in contempt. But even then, it’s a tough road to compliance. Courts have been reluctant to enforce congressional subpoenas. Judges tell lawmakers to use other tools, like cutting off funding. Lawmakers may have to resort sending U.S. Marshals to arrest witnesses who refuse to testify or follow the subpoena. Congress has power, but lawmakers have to decide how far they want to go in using it.
So far, Mueller’s indictments have shown that a foreign government engaged in a sustained campaign to undermine American democracy. What can we do – both voters and elected officials – to protect ourselves from similar attacks in 2020?
First of all, we need to make sure that voting machines, registration databases, and other election infrastructure cannot be hacked by anyone, whether they’re in Russia, North Korea, China, or the United States. Congress authorized nearly $400 million last year for states to bolster security. But there’s so much more to do. States need to make sure voting machines follow best cybersecurity practices and that there are paper records of every vote. Officials should also do post-election audits to check electronic vote totals against the paper tallies, which could help identify a hack.
And regardless of what the report finds, it’s clear that we need to bolster ethics guidelines. Voters deserve to know if a president is working on behalf of the American people, or if they have financial ties or other interests that could also exert influence. Congress can pass legislation that requires transparency in these areas.
We also need to fix campaign finance laws. At the 2010 State of the Union, right after the Citizens United decision, President Barack Obama said the ruling could let undisclosed foreign money into our politics. Justice Samuel Alito, sitting right in front of him at the speech, mouthed his vocal disagreement. Obama was right, and Alito was wrong. We need to require disclosure of money spent on internet campaign ads, the same way we do for other kinds of campaign expenses. The American people need to know who’s behind the messages that they’re seeing.
The vulnerabilities that allowed Russia to interfere in the election from halfway across the world are the very same ones that roil American politics internally. We know what fixes are needed to protect our democracy — we just have to have the political will to make the changes.
(Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)