Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, right, at a news conference in Washington, DC. (Photographer: Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News)

The Mueller Investigation, One Year Later

(Bloomberg) -- Here’s where we are one year after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed. Several things are clear; several are as murky as ever.

The basics:

  • The investigation is not a witch hunt.
  • Russia tried to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. The candidate, his family and his campaign at the very least loosely cooperated.  
  • Trump tried to end or impede the investigation several times. 
  • There’s a variety of other conflicted behavior from Trump.
  • It’s generally unclear the extent of any violations of the law or, in the president’s case, to what extent impeachment and removal would be justified. 
  • But everything about this suggests there are still serious indictments yet to come. There’s very little sign of any good news for the president.

Trump’s favorite phrase to discredit the investigation, “witch hunt,” is very clearly nonsense if it’s meant to imply there’s no there there. For starters, with the exception of many House Republicans, everyone accepts that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election. And as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux’s timeline at FiveThirtyEight shows, only Watergate produced more indictments within a year of the appointment of a dedicated prosecutor. The indictments related to the Trump investigation target important figures in the administration and the campaign. Even if there’s nothing more, this has been a huge scandal by any historical measure.

As far as the key question of collusion with Russia is concerned, we have plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign acted improperly. The Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, in which campaign figures were eager to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton, is evidence enough. Then there’s Trump’s public encouragement of foreign attacks on Clinton and the Democrats. What is unclear is how much of that improper behavior was criminal; to what extent any criminal behavior would justify indictments; and whether any of that applies to the president personally. 

The fact of at least some “light” obstruction was firmly established by Trump’s own words and actions: He fired Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, and then explained that he did so to derail the Russia investigation. It’s less clear whether Trump’s behavior with Comey before firing him or any actions after Mueller was appointed amount to further obstruction. We’re still waiting for word from the special counsel. 

And then there are Trump’s other questionable activities. Some are from the campaign, such as the hush money paid to the porn actress Stormy Daniels via Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Some of the behavior occurred during the presidency: Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his properties that seem to be prospering while he is in office, and maybe even because he is president. 

Nonetheless, contrary to what liberals and some others have constantly predicted, Trump has not fired Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.  Until that happens, it’s probably fair to classify the president’s rants — as well as outbursts by other administration officials — as more-or-less normal pushback against the investigation rather than as obstruction. Assuming, that is, that there’s nothing more going on behind the scenes. 

In any case, the U.S. doesn’t remove presidents for simply breaking the law. The appropriate use of the impeachment and removal powers by Congress does and should mean this process is reserved for the most serious situations (though partisans will disagree on what constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, and political considerations will always have a role). 

But scandals aren’t all-or-nothing propositions that either take down the president or fizzle out. It’s important to determine whether Trump and other administration and campaign officials acted improperly and how, even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment and indictments. Scandals and suggestions of impropriety matter in terms of electoral politics and Washington politics, even if they don't end a presidency. 

As NBC’s First Read said, it’s hard to sort through the seeming chaos of all of this. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson compares the volume of scandal to “Mickey in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” For that, we can blame Congress. What we’ve needed from the start is a senate select committee that would operate like the Senate’s Watergate committee, using a a series of public hearings to carefully lay out the scope of exactly what happened and why it was important. Even the Iran-Contra committee, an unwieldy bicameral effort, did that part of its job better than Congress has performed this time. Sam Ervin’s Watergate committee didn’t produce impeachment by itself, and was for the most part a sideshow, with the real action taking place in the special prosecutor’s offices.  

What that committee did extremely well was to tell the basic story of the scandal in a way the public could easily understand. That’s what we’ve been missing this time. And the lack of clarity leaves us waiting for Mueller -- or perhaps the next Congress -- to finally make sense of it all. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

  1. Yes, we also know he's come close to doing so; it's not as if speculation he's about to do it is mere paranoia or irresponsible assertion without evidence.

  2. The Watergate committee did break some news, most notably the existence of the White House tapes, and also did keep the pressure on the various defendants. But most of the big-picture news was broken elsewhere in Congress or by the press, and meanwhile the various Justice Department investigations were moving forward on their own timelines.

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