Democrats Playing into Trump’s Hands on Mueller Report

We already know enough to impeach.

Walter Dellinger, a distinguished attorney who served as Acting Solicitor General during the Clinton Administration, argues persuasively that “Democrats’ obsession with redaction is obscuring the obvious: Trump committed high crime.”


I have become increasingly concerned about how the country has received the Mueller report. The Republican talking point is that it exonerated the president. The message from the Democratic House, meanwhile, is that the report is inconclusive. Those responses, one mendacious, one tepid and both erroneous, have shaped public understanding. They have not only allowed the president falsely to claim vindication but also left the public without a clear understanding of just how damning the report is.

Most Americans, understandably not having read the 448-page (redacted) report, may be influenced by how the principal parties have responded. If the report were, as the Republicans insist, an exoneration, one might demand to know how this unwarranted investigation got started in the first place, which is exactly how the GOP has proceeded to turn the conversation.

And if you thought the report was merely inconclusive, your natural reaction would be that you need to know more. You would say something like what many House Democrats are repeating endlessly: “We need to see the redactions” and “hear from witnesses” — suggesting that there is as of yet no sufficient basis for judging President Trump’s conduct.

The more I review the report, the more absurd and misleading the we-need-to-know-more response seems to be. And the more it seems to have contributed to public misunderstanding. How different would it have been if a unified chorus of Democratic leaders in Congress and on the campaign trail had promptly proclaimed the actual truth: This report makes the unquestionable case that the president regularly and audaciously violated his oath and committed the most serious high crimes and misdemeanors.

Mueller’s extraordinary 2,800-subpoena, 500-search-warrant, two-year investigation fully established not merely crimes but also the betrayal of the president’s office: a failure to defend the country’s electoral system from foreign attack and acts of interference with justice that shred the rule of law. Congress doesn’t need to read more to announce what is obvious from what it should have read already.

While I agree with Dellinger that the findings are damning, I fear that the current political climate precludes a united front among Democrats doing much to persuade Republicans—or even independents. Still, he has a point:

My concern is that the House’s focus on process — such as requesting redacted material — constitutes a strong, implicit suggestion that what we have seen from Mueller is not enough to assess the president. That is just false. The report lays out in detail specific acts of obstruction by the president, as well as the extensive evidence that backs up those claims. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (including Republicans and Democrats) have publicly declared that, if anyone else had committed those same acts, they would be under indictment.

What will we say in the event the remaining 7 percent of text adds little or nothing to the overwhelming case of presidential wrongdoing already made out by the report? By not having begun impeachment proceedings or taken other strong action, Democrats may have conceded the debate over the Mueller report’s conclusion. Democrats are fighting on process grounds where the White House has some plausible arguments and where winning may add little or nothing to what we already know.

It’s virtually an axiom in politics that, when you’re fighting over process, you’ve already lost. So, what would Dellinger suggest?

The burden, the House should assert, is now clearly on the president to show (if he can) where the report is inaccurate and why it is not the basis for severe condemnation and sanction of the president.
I’m not one to second-guess Nancy Pelosi. She is the greatest majority leader of the House of Representatives in my lifetime. I could be convinced that an impeachment inquiry has its own time for ripening. Or that in the end some form of censure is the better disposition in light of intransigent Republican control of the Senate.

All I am saying is that every day we should have been shouting from the rooftops: “The president is failing to defend democracy from attack”; “The president’s campaign welcomed and encouraged Russia’s efforts to change our election results”; “The president obstructed justice”; and “The president daily undermined the rule of law.” But we have instead been whispering in the hallways of Congress that “we need to see the redactions.” That emphasis is a mistake that needs to be (and hopefully can be) rectified.

Dellinger is implicitly arguing that the Republicans have outplayed the Democrats in the PR battle. And he’s right. Barr’s four-page letter set the tone for the debate that followed. While it was truthful in every detail, it was nonetheless deliberately misleading. Democrats have called him out on that but the stage for that was much smaller and it had minimal impact. And, yes, fighting over redactions rather than proclaiming what we already know outrageous has been foolish.

Still, Pelosi has made the judgment—in which I concurred at the time and continue to believe correct—that impeachment isn’t worth the fallout considering the near-inevitability of acquittal in the Senate. While I’m sympathetic to the argument advanced in the comments here by Michael Reynolds and more publicly by others that impeachment hearings would start to galvanize the nation against Trump, it would inevitably seen as a partisan exercise and could well ensure Trump’s re-election.

Beyond that, I believe the bigger factor in the public’s perception of the Mueller report—more than Barr’s deception or Democratic wonkery—is that the damning details emerged piecemeal over nearly two years. While the 400-page write-up was amazing in its scope, it offered no “smoking gun” that blew the case open. It was perceived as a nothingburger because we already knew almost all of what was in it. As someone (I believe Susan Hennessy) noted on an episode of the Rational Security podcast some time back, the press did their job too well.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Nancy Pelosi, Russia Investigation, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’m not sure I agree with this.

    There are several areas of potential inquiry that are not covered by the Mueller report that merit investigation. These include Trump’s business ties to Russia and the extent they may influence or impact his policy decisions, the issues surrounding the Emoluments Clause cases, the issues surrounding the payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal which implicate Federal election laws, and the business dealings of Trump’s business and charitable organizations.

    Many of these things are being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Congress does not have an interest in investigating these matters.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I don’t even no where to begin. All of this only makes sense if one begins with the assumption that impeachment is the goal. It. is. not.

    The goal is removal from office. And the only thing certain at this point in time is that the Republicans in the Senate will not vote in favor of that. The idea is to convince the voting public to do what the Senate most likely never will, and to make the GOP pay for that sin.

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  3. @OzarkHillbilly:

    I think Democrats make a mistake if they agree with the idea that the goal of the investigations is to get Trump out of office.

    This is an entirely proper exercise of Congressional oversight powers. That is the argument Demcorats should be pushing. If they are seen as primarily being motivated by politics then they’ll end up playing right into Trump’s hands.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    There are several areas of potential inquiry that are not covered by the Mueller report that merit investigation.

    Sure. I’m not seeing Dellinger as saying otherwise.

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The goal is removal from office.

    Agreed. But Dellinger is arguing that, by focusing on the redactions rather than what we already know, Democrats are signaling that what we know doesn’t merit removal from office.

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  5. Christopher Rudolph says:

    The House Democrats are right to approach impeachment with caution. They can count Senate votes and know that Mitch McConnell and the other Republican Senators are not currently willing to convict Bone Spurious. Without enough votes in the Senate, it is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is worth remembering that no impeachment has ever led to a conviction in the Senate and the only reason Nixon resigned, when faced with the prospect of impeachment, is he knew that he had lost Republican votes in the Senate. Impeachment without conviction could very well do damage to the Democrats.

  6. Jax says:

    Did the Democrats in Congress decide to actually read the damn thing, despite the redactions? It’s not a good look for them to not read it “in protest”, simply because they want to read the unredacted version.

    I am of the opinion that every single sitting member of Congress should be required to read it, and if they won’t, it will be read to them. All 400+ pages.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: All is fair in love and politics. Or at least that is the lesson I learned from 2016, and the all but innumerable investigations of Benghazi that all reached the same conclusions and the constant droning on about Hillary’s emails that preceded it. Whether DEMs say it or not (and Pelosi isn’t) that is the goal of everything they are doing. As it is in every election, for both parties.

    If they are seen as primarily being motivated by politics then they’ll end up playing right into Trump’s hands.

    IOKYAR.

    @James Joyner: They may be paying more attention to it than they should, but I have a fair amount of confidence in their ability to walk and chew gum. Doug already enumerated above a number of other investigative directions they are going in. Besides, how much of what we read on this is the DEMs focusing on the redactions and how much of it is the press? The Mueller report is the shiny new object the media just can’t let go of.

    As to

    But Dellinger is arguing that, by focusing on the redactions rather than what we already know, Democrats are signaling that what we know doesn’t merit removal from office.

    And he’s wrong. People who are paying attention, D or R, already know how damning the report is. The problem is getting everybody else to pay attention. Ds may not be going about it the right way, I certainly don’t know, politics is not my forte. But they seem to think that focusing on getting the details right is more important than getting the headlines. Recent history would suggest that is a mistake.

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  8. Kathy says:

    I’ll repeat what I said a few days ago: it plays into Trump’s hands to think that any action plays into Trump’s tiny hands.

    That said, the Democrats are not nearly loud nor insistent enough in getting their message out. they should be talking to the news media, all of it, every day, reiterating the case for obstruction of justice by Trump, as well as his refusal to allow Congress to conduct oversight. Not because “it plays into Trump’s hands,” but because it’s necessary to take control of a narrative.

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  9. Kit says:

    Dellinger is implicitly arguing that the Republicans have outplayed the Democrats in the PR battle.

    When hasn’t that been the case? R’s can create scandals out of airy nothing, while D’s can’t convince people that the sky is blue. Michael has been repeatedly dunking on one of our trolling regulars by asking a single question. Soul-destroying, in-your-face, gorilla-off-the-trampoline-at-halftime dunks. I find them funny, scary and enlightening. Democrats need a half dozen of these that they repeat ad nauseam. No politician should be able to order coffee without mentioning one. Repeat them until they pierce the Fox bubble. Put up billboards. Let people know that all debates will be circle around these issues, no matter the ostensible subject. And when Trump tries to dodge, just keep plowing forward. Forget about nuance that requires a triple-digit IQ and some degree of good faith. Plow Republican voters under the never-ending BS they have been spouting these past 25 years. Shut them the fuq up. Shut them down. Keep them at home.

    Bring this back to the Meuller report, D’s should boil it down to a good 1-2 punch. The first should be a single, easy-to-understand rally cry that ends with as proven in the Mueller report. The second should be: What else is Trump hiding in that report? (The ‘else’ is a nice way to press the attack.) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Let R’s answer it one thousand times, just so long as D’s ask ten thousand times. As was decisively shown with Hillary, any accusation hurled often enough colors, in the end, everyone’s judgement.

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  10. JKB says:

    Well, the one thing we know about federal prosecutors, especially former federal prosecutors, of either party is that they’d indict their own mother for lying to them about the existence of Santa Claus if it would advance their political aspirations.

    On the other hand, the former federal prosecutors most familiar with the evidence in the Mueller investigation, Bill Barr, Rosenstein, other senior DOJ people, determined on the evidence without consideration of indictability of a sitting president, that obstruction of justice could not be proven to the legal standard necessary for prosecution. The former federal prosecutor most familiar of all with the evidence just decided he couldn’t decide, even though that’s the job of a prosecutor, that is to decide whether there is evidence, in absence of contrary defense, to prove the charges.

    As for not “defending democracy” from Russian interference, well, a lot has happened, and I understand people want to block it out, but when this interference is said to have happened, Barack Obama was president, Jim Comey was director of the FBI, James Clapper was DNI and John Brennan was director of the CIA. The failure lies with the people who held the important offices, not the guy the people elected to clean up their incompetence.

    Looking for someone to blame, then look to the partisan media and their anonymous sources of information that turned out to not be true. The public was told there would be blood and what they got was at worst for Trump “can’t prove a damn thing even before a defense is offered”.

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Your illegitimate president is a traitor to this country. You lie to protect his treason. And that makes you. . .?

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  12. JKB says:

    Practicing federal law defense lawyer, Scott Greenfield, has an essay on the difference between the law as governs society and the “squishy law” on display here where it is all about it feels to the observer.

    This is what I call “squishy law.” It’s been happening forever, that people without any clue what the law provides feel entitled to not merely decide for themselves what it means, but believe it vehemently. They’re “the People,” and isn’t the law for the People? So if the people decide (forgetting, for the moment, that they are but one person, or maybe a similar-minded group) that this is what they want the law to mean, that’s what it means. Who are lawyers to tell them? Just because we have a fancy education, experience in a court where other law-talking people validate our tricks, does that make us more qualified than them to know lawful from unlawful?

  13. JohnMcC says:

    I guess it’s just me or something but somehow to frame the question as “Democrats playing into Trump’s hands” when there is a complete ecosystem of Republican and “conservative” people of judgement and intelligence who for some reason support Mr Trump. They will continue to do so despite the obvious, in-your-face obstruction of justice and kissing of Russian ass.

    It would be better to have a stronger Democratic response, no doubt about it. But the problem our country faces is NOT Democrats.

    Jus’ sayin’.

  14. Kylopod says:

    @Kit:

    Dellinger is implicitly arguing that the Republicans have outplayed the Democrats in the PR battle.

    When hasn’t that been the case? R’s can create scandals out of airy nothing, while D’s can’t convince people that the sky is blue.

    Then how do you explain polls showing a large plurality of Americans saying that Trump obstructed justice and a majority saying he hasn’t been exonerated of collusion? That’s a curious definition of “winning the PR battle.”

    That’s not to say what they’re doing isn’t effective. The number who think he’s guilty should be far more overwhelming and unambiguous. They’ve done a remarkable job of keeping their own side on board, while leaving a certain number of others in confusion. Even though together that’s still only a minority of the public, they have enough institutional advantages that it may be sufficient for Trump to completely get away with his crimes.

    But this notion that they’re invincible masters of PR whom Dems are completely powerless in the face of is inaccurate and defeatist.

  15. Moosebreath says:

    @JohnMcC:

    “I guess it’s just me or something but somehow to frame the question as “Democrats playing into Trump’s hands” when there is a complete ecosystem of Republican and “conservative” people of judgement and intelligence who for some reason support Mr Trump. They will continue to do so despite the obvious, in-your-face obstruction of justice and kissing of Russian ass.”

    Yes, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that Republicans have no free will whatsoever. Nor a sense of shame.

  16. just nutha says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The goal may be removal from office, but the time and place for that is the first Tuesday in November of 2020. Democrats have a lot of work to do before then and I’m not sure that more theater is best way to proceed.

  17. mike shupp says:

    @Kylopod:
    What strikes me is not that we have “polls showing a large plurality of Americans saying that Trump obstructed justice and a majority saying he hasn’t been exonerated of collusion” but that other polls show most Americans think Trump is no more dishonest than his predecessors in office, or otherwise unusual. He’s just a typical Republican politician doing his best, these people think, and the Democrats and other folks screaming about him are just shouting things like liberals always do.

    So … people really aren’t good at remembering the “distant” past, let alone evaluating events and forming opinions based on evidence, and they’ve been listening to a liberal-vs-conservative screech fight since Newt Gingrich tore into Bill Clinton a quarter century ago. You and I may think these battles affect the future of this country and even the world, but a substantial number of voters think of them as something like NBA finals.

    I don’t know what to do about this, or even if I should want to do something. It ain’t True Democracy but maybe we’re all better off if so many people find politics incomprehensible? STEVE TAYLOR, PLEASE OPINE.

  18. Kylopod says:

    @mike shupp:

    but that other polls show most Americans think Trump is no more dishonest than his predecessors in office

    What polls are these? The one I found has 65% of Americans calling Trump dishonest. Obama, in contrast, was seen by the majority as honest.

  19. CSK says:

    @Christopher Rudolph:

    Bone Spurious. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

  20. Andrew says:

    Pelosi is playing this correct.
    Look at it this way.
    Why use the rule of law against Trump, when he has a vast history of being able to wiggle out of major obligations by using the laws?
    The GOP establishment has a vast mechanism for situations like this. Make the illegal seem legal under certain lights.

    Let the people decide. Release the report, keep investigations open into Trump businesses, and remember Trump has no bar that’s too low for him.

  21. test says:

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