For leftist anti-Trumpers like me, the Mueller report was initially a godsend, though not for the more obvious reasons. I belong to a rarified group that hates liberal moaning about Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 election: we ridicule the claim that Vladimir Putin and his henchmen stole the presidency from Hillary Clinton because we know that Clinton herself and neo-liberal Clintonism were the real causes of her demise. I often tell outraged Democrats to calm down and stop watching Russiagate obsessives such as Rachel Maddow on TV. Trump, I insist, won the electoral college thanks to 80,000 or so angry former Democrats in three states — many thrown out of work or otherwise hurt by Nafta and the China trade deal — who voted in desperation for an unhinged landlord in populist clothing. So ‘no collusion’, as Trump incessantly puts it, fitted neatly into my conviction that intellectually corrupt liberals were nearly as bad as Trump. Granted, Trump did some ‘interfering’ of his own with Mueller and the Justice Department, but the whole spurious charge of conspiracy with the Kremlin had been mercifully put to bed. Now it was time to focus on beating Trump at the polls next year, not impeaching him.
But then I actually read the Mueller report. As the constitutional scholar David Cole has written, it is ‘an indictment in all but name’. One cannot absorb it without concluding that the President has usurped congressional authority, obstructed justice and subverted the constitution. Government reports come and go, largely unread, but, like the Feinstein report on CIA torture, this one packs real dramatic punch. The extensive redactions in the first half (mostly connected with alleged Russian skulduggery) only serve to highlight the shocking clarity of the narrative in the second half, when Trump goes berserk over the recusal of his Attorney General, during his firing of FBI director James Comey, and then again after the naming of Mueller as special counsel.
Cynics say that in the age of Twitter, hardly anyone will read the Mueller report because it’s too long, despite there being three different editions on the New York Times best-seller list. But even if these cynics are correct, you don’t need to read much to become convinced of Trump’s culpability. Take this passage, based on an investigator’s interview with White House counsel Donald McGahn:
‘On Saturday, June 17 , the President called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed…McGahn recalled that the President called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts of interest that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel… McGahn recalled that the President said something like, “You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod”… When the President called McGahn a second time… McGahn recalled that the President was more direct, saying something like: “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.” McGahn recalled the President telling him “Mueller has to go” and “Call me back when you do it”.’
The story only gets better, with McGahn deciding to resign, then changing his mind, then telling chief of staff Reince Priebus, according to Priebus, ‘that the President had asked him to “do crazy shit”,’ though McGahn declined to share with his White House colleagues just what crazy shit that might have been. I’m just a citizen, not a lawyer, but it seems to me that any red-blooded prosecutor would relish the opportunity to put McGahn and Priebus on the witness stand and follow the trail of crazy shit a bit further than Mueller’s investigators were empowered to do. The best, and for now only, realistic venue for such a legal confrontation is a trial in the United States Senate.
Yet the Democratic party, the party of the Clintons and Obama, prevaricates. Now equipped with a solid majority in the House of Representatives, the party of opposition hesitates to impeach a chief executive who summarily rejects their constitutional prerogatives with contempt and insult, resisting subpoenas, intimidating potential witnesses and flouting the rule of law. All that is needed to force a trial in the Senate is a simple majority in the House in favour of one article of impeachment, though there would certainly be multiple articles presented.
But a strange lassitude has taken hold of the Democratic establishment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns against impeachment because of its ‘divisive’ consequences. Other party stalwarts such as Robert Bennett, who helped defend Bill Clinton in his 1999 impeachment trial, are more tactically blunt and oppose impeachment on pragmatic grounds.
They say that impeaching Trump is pointless, since the Republican-held Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required for conviction, is almost certain to acquit him. Worse, argue the ‘pragmatists’, the pursuit of Trump through impeachment will make him a martyr and strengthen his chances of being re-elected. As Bennett put it on CNN in April: ‘Sometimes for the benefit of the country you have to rise above principle.’
Unsurprising from a Clinton crony, but nevertheless a breathtakingly cynical statement. And tactically incorrect, I believe. Bennett says that an acquitted Trump ‘will claim victory’. But the President is already doing that, largely unchallenged, in the aftermath of a devastating examination of his corrupt and possibly criminal behaviour that does anything but exonerate him. The Mueller report has faults — mainly the overemphasis on Russian hacking — but if you can’t find high crimes and misdemeanours in it you’re just not looking. The best way to defeat Trump in 2020 is to weaken him with constant and damning citations from the Mueller report, regardless of acquittal or conviction. Already a principled Republican congressman, Justin Amash of Michigan, has defected to the pro-impeachment camp. Why couldn’t there be more?
I think Pelosi and Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, are hesitating because there’s something rotten in the Democratic party, just as rotten as what we see in page after page of Mueller’s terse narrative. Having lost the working-class vote to Trump, their condescension toward ordinary people has only increased. They ignorantly believe that Trump voters are hopelessly uneducable racists.
But it is Bennett’s remark about ‘rising above principle’ that reveals the fatal hypocrisy, and cowardice, of the Democrats. Impeaching Trump would inevitably remind the country of the impeachment and acquittal of Bill Clinton, which the party can’t live down. Having sex with an intern in the Oval Office may not rise to the crazy shit Trump is up to, but it was pretty crazy.