As all of Washington—and the country—await the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, which could come at any moment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put words last week to the as-yet-unspoken consensus on Capitol Hill: Impeaching the president will be a high bar.
“Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it,” Pelosi told The Washington Post last week.
The comment, like so much of the Trump era, hit Washington as shocking but not surprising. It was in many ways a classic “ Kinsley gaffe ,” as columnist Michael Kinsley once labeled any gaffe when a politician inadvertently tells the truth, because her comment was obviously, demonstrably true. While the House could move to impeach the president, his conviction and removal by the Senate would require the cooperation of numerous Republicans. The political reality, as Pelosi’s comments acknowledge, is that nothing about Trump thus far has moved the GOP substantially in that direction.
After all, the Republican Party has clearly decided that the hush money payments Trump directed—a serious campaign finance felony violation—are “not worth it.”
The campaign finance conspiracy to buy up the rights to the stories of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal is far from the paperwork mistake that the GOP has painted it to be—it goes directly to the legitimacy of the electoral system. Michael Cohen has already shown the world evidence that makes clear the knowing involvement of the president in this scheme while he was in the White House. The president would almost certainly have been indicted personally except he’s in office , which leaves some gray area about his ability to face prosecution.
Similarly, the GOP has decided that the criminality surrounding the president is “not worth it.” For them, the fact that the man who promised to hire “ the best and most serious people ” has instead proven himself so incompetent a manager and leader that he’s been taken advantage of by nearly everyone close to him is not cause for concern.
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In seemingly any other time, Mueller’s exposé of the sheer greed and criminality at the heart of the campaign would have been enough to upend a normal presidential administration. Because even if Mueller never shows a Russia connection to Trump, the special counsel and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have already shown that Trump’s 2016 presidential bid was the most criminal campaign in the history of US politics, a collection of grifters working on the sly to advance their own financial interests at the expense of the United States.
To recap, the campaign chairman and deputy campaign chairman were involved in a decade-long, $65 million money-laundering scheme that defrauded the US government, banks, and taxpayers while they worked on behalf of pro-Russian interests, a conspiracy that continued right through the campaign. Meanwhile, the campaign’s national security adviser was working as an unregistered foreign agent of the authoritarian government of Turkey, and the president’s longtime adviser and lawyer was also involved in his own years-long bank and tax fraud around taxi medallions.
Such activity is not only criminal, it shows a massive disregard for the normal course of politics, societal norms, and American values. This was a campaign filled with people who were touting warm, sugary apple pie on the trail while selling slices out the back door to foreign governments and telling tax authorities that the pie plate was entirely empty.
Lastly, the GOP has clearly decided that potential kompromat on the president is “not worth it.” Because, again, we know that Donald Trump, while campaigning for president, was engaging in business negotiations with the highest levels of Russian government—and then lied about it to the American people for two years, lies that Russia clearly knew were false, leaving him exposed to massive counterintelligence risk.
It’s hard not to think that, in normal times, any one of these things would have been enough to give some members of the president’s own party pause, let alone all three.
At the same time, there’s still truth to the President’s increasingly unhinged tweet storms : There is “NO COLLUSION,” at least not yet.
None of Mueller’s indictments, guilty pleas, or court filings has yet shown evidence of “collusion,” the sound-bite shorthand that actually means a witting conspiracy against the United States in which some manner of Russian intelligence, officials, or Kremlin-linked businesspeople cooperated with Trump campaign advisers to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. There have been no shortage of suspicious activities so far: 100-plus contacts with Russia , Roger Stone’s odd communications with Wikileaks , Jared Kushner’s request for a secure Russian comms channel , Michael Flynn’s odd conversations with the Russian ambassador, and much more.
But Mueller hasn’t connected any of those dots yet, which is why everyone is eagerly awaiting the Mueller Report, in whatever form it may take. Nancy Pelosi’s comments last week seemed to speak out loud that which had already been baked into the capital’s political firmament and the GOP’s calculus: Sure, the president has been credibly accused of crimes, but none of them so far were that startling or astonishing.
Mueller—or the Southern District, or one of the other 18-plus investigations targeting the president—could dramatically alter the impeachment narrative in Washington in at least three ways: (1) by outlining clear evidence of a specific presidential crime, (2) a demonstrable, smoking-gun-included pattern of obstruction, or (3) demonstrable action taken to compromise American interests at the expense of advancing a foreign power’s goals, including actively conspiring with Russia in the 2016 campaign.
As the president’s tweets and his TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani continue to harp, we haven’t seen any of those scenarios unfold yet. But if Mueller or SDNY has any of that, it's going to make it very hard for the GOP line to hold.
For the first scenario—leaving aside the campaign finance allegations, which the GOP seems to have decided don’t matter and that prosecutors don’t seem inclined to push forward yet—we haven’t seen specific evidence in court filings of Donald Trump’s irrefutable personal involvement in specific crimes, either in his role as a businessman, as a candidate, or as president. If, though, there’s clear, credible, documentable evidence that the president suborned perjury, lied to the special counsel, or engaged in any manner of other crimes, it seems clear that Congress would treat that very differently, especially if it was framed in a way that Mueller, prosecutors, or the Justice Department indicate they would normally recommend criminal charges. This is partly why the reaction to BuzzFeed’s not-entirely-clear bombshell that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie hit with such impact: Within hours, impeachment calls on Capitol Hill were coming fast, and it was only the unprecedented statement by Mueller’s office that pumped the brakes.
As for obstruction of justice, pundits have tied themselves in knots over the past two years debating whether the president could be charged with obstruction of justice or impeached over the firing of FBI director James Comey, whether the president was acting within his Article II executive powers, and so on. That approach almost certainly defines Mueller’s obstruction investigation too narrowly.
Mueller appears to have been laying the groundwork for a much broader pattern of obstruction, a pattern of lies, actions, and obfuscations where the Comey firing is merely one of many related incidents—potentially dozens—that stretch across multiple years and leave no doubt of the president’s intent to obstruct. This is potentially backed up by documentary evidence like contemporaneous notes, memos, emails, or telephone calls. Mueller has expressed his interest in the Air Force One statement drafted by the president, downplaying the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, as well as potentially Michael Cohen’s coordination, if any, with the White House over his false testimony to Congress. One specific line from the special counsel’s filing in Cohen’s case might telegraph where Mueller is heading: “By publicly presenting this false narrative, the defendant deliberately shifted the timeline of what had occurred in hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.” This scenario—of a president seeking to mislead the American public—was part of the charges against Richard Nixon, after all.
To the third point, we may still see evidence that the president took an action—or tried to—for the direct benefit of a foreign power at the express compromise of American interests, either Russia or a Middle Eastern power, or that he outright accepted help from Russia during the 2016 campaign. If such a conspiracy exists and Mueller or other prosecutors are able to show that the president is elevating other nations before our own or otherwise conspiring with Vladimir Putin, it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump’s political situation doesn’t become rapidly untenable. Any allegations in this realm would go to the core of the Russia collusion question and be all but impossible for the GOP to ignore.
To be clear, too, if they find evidence to support any one of the above scenarios, Mueller or other investigators may end up finding evidence of more than just one scenario. In some ways, the most logical outcome might be that if evidence for one exists, then evidence will exist for all three. (For instance, that if there is collusion, then the president took action on behalf of a foreign government and then also obstructed the investigation.)
Regardless, it’s worth restating that, even if he shuts shop today, Mueller hasn’t found nothing. He’s already uncovered numerous serious crimes—crimes committed by the president and his campaign and White House aides, crimes against the US government, taxpayers, voters, Congress, and the American public.
The only question is whether whatever Mueller has left to show us is, in Washington’s estimate, “worth it.”
Garrett M. Graff ( @vermontgmg ) is a contributing editor for WIRED and coauthor of the book Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at [email protected]
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