University of Chicago

Presidential Investigations by Adam Parket

On Wednesday morning, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller offered his first, and what he hopes will be his last, public address on his investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential election. This statement was meant to clarify and supplement the report that he published earlier this year where he declined to indict the President for any crimes, though similarly declined to exonerate Trump. Instead, Mueller opted to present his findings in a report to Attorney General Barr. In turn, Barr presented what he believed to be a key summary of its findings to the public, and offered no recommendations to indict the president. After extended controversy regarding the accuracy of Barr’s summary, which included skeptics from both sides of the aisle, Mueller elected to speak to the public and clarify his report in his own words.

Without directly accusing Barr of misleading the public, Mueller used this opportunity to either contradict aspects of what Barr reported, or provide more color to his points. In his statement, Mueller provided two points of context that significantly taint Barr’s explanation of his report. First, Barr insisted and implied that Trump was exonerated of all charges related to the Russia investigation. In reality, Trump had been neither exonerated from collusion charges, or charges stemming from obstruction of justice. In fact, today Mueller insisted that “If we had had the confident that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” This message is in stark contrast to that of Barr and Trump, the latter of which describing Barr’s account of the report as a victory: claiming “no collusion, no obstruction.” Second, Mueller commented on his inability to charge a seated President with a crime whether or not the trial for said crime were to occur publicly or privately. Still, the need to investigate potential crimes immediately exists in order to find potential co-conspirators and to follow the trail of evidence before it runs cold years later. Although not mentioned by Mueller as a reason for investigating potential crimes involving the president is the information that could come out and affect future elections for the candidate.

In his article, Ozan Varol argues that stealth authoritarian leaders “erode mechanisms of accountability” and restrict the ability for the public to monitor government policies and actions. President Trump continually called for limiting the scope of the investigation, attacking its legitimacy, and impugning the character of Robert Mueller. Trump’s constant storm of tweets and public comments detracted from people’s appreciation of the significance of the report. By the time Barr had spoken, people’s interest in the probe had fallen, as with their confidence in its potential ramifications. Although Trump’s actions to distract and discredit the report were all technically legal, he was significantly aided by the confidence that his AG would not indict him for obstruction charges, and that at least one Supreme Court Justice agreed he could not be indicted while sitting as President.

Under the protection from those meant to check his power, Trump was able to distract from the true findings of Mueller’s report. Trump has time again been able to distract from scandal by lying to the public to confuse them, and then attacking the legitimacy of his antagonists. While Mueller’s statements today may be harder to combat, Trump has instead rested on the American idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Trump tweeted that Mueller’s updated statements change nothing about the situation at hand, and the case is now closed. Trump’s conduct throughout this process has been corrosive to the democratic process, to the system of checks and balances, and to the American People’s faith in the government. While Mueller has presented his hope that he will not have to publically testify again, every chance still exists that he will be called in front of congress to testify further. While Trump has so far withstood the storm brought on by the Mueller report, his defenses assuredly remain on high alert.

Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Part II.

Photo by Cliff Owen, taken from stock images. Creative Commons Zero license.

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