World / Politics | ANALYSIS

Mueller report gives Democrats political ammo against Trump, but they are split on how to use it

Reuters, AP

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election provided extensive details on President Donald Trump’s efforts to thwart the probe, giving Democrats plenty of political ammunition against the Republican but no consensus on how to use it.

Mueller’s 448-page report, the product of a 22-month investigation, built a broad case that Trump had committed obstruction of justice but stopped short of concluding he had committed a crime, although it did not exonerate him.

Mueller noted Congress has the power to address whether Trump violated the law, and Democrats quickly vowed to steam ahead with congressional investigations of the president.

But party leaders played down talk of impeachment just 18 months before the 2020 presidential election, even as some prominent members of the party’s progressive wing, most notably U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, promised to push the idea.

“Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. I didn’t campaign on it, & rarely discuss it unprompted,” she said on Twitter. “But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep.”

Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter: “There seems to be some confusion. … This isn’t a matter of legal interpretation; it’s reading comprehension. The report doesn’t say Congress should investigate obstruction now. It says Congress can make laws about obstruction under Article I powers.”

Many of the report’s findings are certain to be repeated on the campaign trail as Democrats make their case against Trump’s re-election, although Democratic presidential candidates were cautious in responding on Thursday.

Mueller’s report noted “numerous links” between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign and said the president’s team “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” referring to hacked Democratic emails.

But Mueller, a former FBI director, concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that Trump’s campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

After the report’s release, Trump appeared to be in a celebratory mood. Trump, having long described Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt,” on Thursday night told a crowd of well wishers in Florida where he will spend the weekend: “Game over folks, now it’s back to work.”

The report, with some portions blacked out to protect sensitive information, revealed details of how Trump tried to force Mueller’s ouster, directed members of his administration to publicly vouch for his innocence and dangled a pardon to a former aide to try to prevent him from cooperating with the special counsel.

“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report stated.

The report said that when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump in May 2017 that the Justice Department was appointing a special counsel to look into allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia, Trump slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f—-ed.”

Attorney General William Barr told a news conference Mueller had detailed “10 episodes involving the president and discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.” Barr concluded last month after receiving a confidential copy of Mueller’s report that Trump had not actually committed a crime.

Any impeachment effort would start in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, but Trump’s removal would require the support of the Republican-led Senate — an unlikely outcome.

The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, said he would issue subpoenas to obtain the unredacted Mueller report and asked Mueller to testify before the panel by May 23.

Nadler told reporters in New York that Mueller probably wrote the report with the intent of providing Congress a road map for future action, but the congressman said it was too early to talk about impeachment.

House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer echoed that sentiment.

“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment,” Hoyer told CNN.

The inquiry laid bare what the special counsel and U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, denigrate 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. Russia has denied election interference.

The report said Mueller accepted the longstanding Justice Department view that a sitting president cannot be indicted on criminal charges, while still recognizing that a president can be criminally investigated.

In analyzing whether Trump obstructed justice, Mueller looked at a series of actions by Trump, including his attempts to remove Mueller and limit the scope of his probe and efforts to prevent the public from knowing about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between senior campaign officials and Russians.

In June 2017, Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed, the report said. McGahn did not carry out the order. McGahn was home on a Saturday that month when Trump called him at least twice.

“You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,” McGahn recalled the president as saying, according to the report.

House Judiciary Democrat Jamie Raskin pointed to Trump’s effort to get McGahn to fire Mueller and then lie about being told to do so as an area of interest for lawmakers, and said McGahn and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be valuable witnesses as the committee moves forward.

Across the report’s nearly 450 pages, blocks of black interrupt parts of Mueller’s careful, dry narrative recounting Russian election meddling and Trump’s fear and ire. Most often, the Justice Department redactions mask a few words or paragraphs. In a few spots, they stretch for an entire page.

Barr said the report released Thursday was marred only by “limited redactions,” but that’s true only for the part of the report dealing with possible obstruction by Trump. An Associated Press analysis of the full document shows that nearly two-thirds of the section dealing with Russia’s meddling — 139 pages out of 199 — had some form of redaction.

By comparison, only 24 out of 182 pages in the obstruction section were at least partially masked, the AP analysis shows.

The disparity reflects concerns over disclosing intelligence and ongoing law enforcement matters related to Russian interference in the election and, to a lesser degree, exposing grand jury testimony. The AP analysis showed that nearly 40 percent of the report’s entire 448 pages — including its two main sections, appendixes and even its table of contents — had redactions.

The blacked-out passages leave factual holes that force readers to guess Mueller’s intent. Even before the report’s release, the redactions were at the core of a political battle pitting the Trump administration against skeptical Democratic lawmakers, who have insisted on the release of the full report. Barr has promised to provide congressional leaders with a version of the report containing fewer redactions, but it’s not clear if this will satisfy Democrats.

Barr said his department had to redact material related to grand jury proceedings, ongoing investigations, privacy issues and intelligence, but said the redactions were limited.

“Given the limited nature of the redactions, I believe that the publicly released report will allow every American to understand the results of the special counsel’s investigation,” Barr said in a news conference shortly before the redacted report was released.

Several blacked-out passages refer to efforts by the Trump campaign to keep apprised of WikiLeaks dumps of Clinton-related material. The passages refer to now-convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and to other campaign aides and allies.

Those references are likely related to the Mueller team’s investigation into the activities of long-time Trump ally Roger Stone, who faces charges stemming from conversations he had during the campaign about WikiLeaks

Some pages that are almost entirely blacked out appear to mask the Mueller team’s narrative concerning efforts by a secretive Russian tech team known as the Internet Research Agency to interfere in the 2016 election on the side of the Trump campaign.

In referencing Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch who funded that group, Justice officials blacked out details about his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is under indictment, but is not in U.S. custody.

“Harm to Ongoing Matter,” the blacked out section noted.