Now that the Russian Connections investigation is in the hands of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, we should be thinking about where this might lead, and, insofar as there are choices, where we hope it leads.
As any number of commentators have noted, Mueller’s appointment means that we are unlikely to learn much of anything from the various governmental investigations for months, maybe even years. (For example: Michelle Cottle in The Atlantic, and Andrew Kent in Lawfare.) On the one hand, Mueller will be circumspect about any release of information until his investigation comes to a conclusion, and on the other, Republican leaders controlling the House and Senate committee investigations will say the matter is now in the hands of the Special Counsel.
Mueller’s focus is likely to be on whether any laws were broken, but his actual scope of concern may, by virtue of Rosenstein’s letter appointing him, be broader than that. We just don’t know, and are unlikely to know for some time. Nevertheless, there are things we can do and things we can think about.
Next steps. While Mueller’s investigation is in progress, here are three next steps we should be taking.
- Because his focus may be on the narrow question of whether any laws were broken, we should continue to press the various Congressional committees to continue their work. We need to know whether there was improper (whether legal or not) foreign/Russian involvement in this election, and whether anyone connected with the Trump campaign or the Republican Party encouraged or abetted that involvement. These are proper, essential matters for the Congress to consider.
- We need to continue to press for the release of Trump’s tax returns. The public has a right to know; they should have been released well before the election. Mueller may seek them, but if he does, he may never release them. This question needs to be pressed every day.
- So far, Mike Pence is getting a pass. He is out of focus, and in the bushes. We need to press to know what Pence knew and what role he played in the election and the transition. Is he implicated as well? As CNN has pointedly asked, Did Pence know Flynn was under federal investigation two weeks before Flynn’s appointment as National Security Advisor? The New York Times has reported that Flynn told the transition team he was under investigation two weeks before the inauguration, and Pence led the transition team. How could Pence not know? All this puts a new color on the story that Flynn lied to Pence and that this was what triggered Flynn’s dismissal.
Good investigative journalism (independent, fair and factual) is going to continue to be essential.
Acceptable Resolutions. (a) Trump toughs it out, (b) Trump resigns, (c) Trump is impeached. That is a short list of possible upshots of this crisis. Which would we prefer? A Quick End Would Be Better, writes E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post, but he goes on to discuss a paradox: Democrats want Trump out sooner, but would be better served if he hung around to embarrass the Republicans in 2018 and perhaps 2020; Republicans are not so eager to show him the door, but would be better served in the next elections by a quick exit. Many who never wanted Trump in the first place are beginning to consider the difficulties of life under a President Pence, assuming he would survive a resignation or impeachment. We’d likely see a reinvigorated hard right agenda shared between the President and the Republican majorities in the Congress. So what do we want? Today I believe we should work for one of two outcomes.
- Trump stays, but with a crippled agenda. I believe Dionne is correct. Even with the risks of a narcissistic impulsive President, we’d be better off with Trump than with Pence, though we would have to work to see that none of the Republican agenda moves forward: not on health care, not on taxes, not on the environment, not on education. Were Trump to try to resolve such a stalemate through a resignation, we should continue to press to know what Pence knew and what he actions he took during the election and transition.
- If Trump is to be impeached, let Republicans take the lead. Trump is a Republican-made crisis through and through. Republican words and deeds during the Obama years paved the way for Trump, Trump prospered in the primaries against their ragtag band of candidates, their voters stuck by him in the election, and through the first three months Republican leaders in the Congress have stood steadfastly by Trump. (Think what little we have heard from Ryan or McConnell about this crisis.) If Republicans want him gone, let them do the heavy lifting. Let them explain why he needs to be impeached. Don’t ask the Democrats, with a few Republicans, to clean up this mess.
Trump needs to be hung around Republican necks while he is in office, through his departure, and during the clean-up.
While we press for the full truth on the Russia connection and for the release of Trump’s tax returns,
- we need to continue to call attention to Trump’s lies, misdeeds and mistakes, and, at least as important,
- we need to say more clearly what we stand for. What agenda are we prepared to move once he is gone?