The House Judiciary Committee has authorized chairman Jerrold Nadler to subpoena Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report on Russian election interference, and unless Attorney General William Barr reverses his opposition to providing Congress the report voluntarily, it is critical that Nadler deploy the subpoena unreluctantly.
When Barr remains defiant, or President Trump intervenes to conceal the report, the ensuing battle will be waged in the lofty language of precedent and checks and balances and separation of powers. But those terms will paper over the underlying question that makes this particular fight a matter of enormous public interest: What are they hiding?
That question has fairly obvious and crass political force, but in this case it’s one that needs to be answered, not just asked, because without at least a complete accounting of what happened in 2016, and a credible response from the government, the basic trust that allows our political system to function with legitimacy will be shattered.
After briefly pretending to support complete transparency, based on a dishonest assertion that Mueller had exonerated him, Trump has backpedaled almost all the way. He has even suggested that the Justice Department should shelve the Mueller report, and ignore congressional demands for any further disclosure.
But even partial concealment from Congress would cause permanent damage, and not just to the institutions of Congress and the Justice Department.
The way things have shaken out since Mueller completed his investigation has left the country deeply vulnerable. For reasons that won’t be entirely clear until his report becomes public, Mueller was not able to establish that the ways the Trump campaign worked knowingly and in tandem with the Russian government throughout the 2016 election amounted to a criminal conspiracy. Between that conclusion, and Barr’s subsequent intervention to declare Trump should not be subject to prosecution for obstruction of justice, the full weight of the Justice Department now rests behind the view that presidential campaigns can partner tacitly with hostile foreign intelligence services to sabotage their opponents, then try to conceal the relationship, and face no legal consequences for it.
What that really means in practice is that Trump and future Republican candidates, contemptuous of the rule-based international order, can undermine U.S. sovereignty to get themselves elected by encouraging authoritarian regimes to play in our campaigns, and do so with complete impunity. Nobody will have any recourse.
Plenty of Republicans would be satisfied with that outcome—as House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff memorably scolded his Republican colleagues, “You might say that’s just what you need to do to win.” But it’s not acceptable, and most people in the country won’t abide by it.
Congress thus needs the full Mueller report for two reasons. First, to instill confidence that the redacted report the government issues for public consumption (to protect intelligence equities and ongoing investigations) has been redacted in good faith—and that what remains accurately conveys the thrust of the full document.
Second, so that Congress itself can take appropriate steps to safeguard American elections, from this president and future ones based on the complete set of facts.
The House Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over impeachment, and it has a right to a complete accounting of the president’s corruption and abuses of power. That check becomes useless if the only institution allowed to completely scrutinize the president is housed within the executive branch, and the attorney general, can withhold its findings.
But the Judiciary Committee is also the body with jurisdiction over the kinds of laws we could put into place to criminalize the ways the Trump campaign and Trump himself played dirty in the election and then tried to cover it up.
“When the full scope of the president’s misconduct has been revealed, when his lies are debunked and his abuses have been laid bare, I believe that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will draft legislation to curb the worst of his offenses,” Nadler wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week. “Put another way: If President Trump’s behavior wasn’t criminal, then perhaps it should have been.”
I’d go further and say there’s no doubt it should have been—and that if a Democrat did half of what Trump did, Republicans would demand prosecution under existing laws, let alone changes to the law itself. But if DOJ sustains its position while denying Congress and the public a fair chance to weigh in, the standard of conduct for candidates and presidents will remain where Trump set it, and we will be in deep trouble.