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Understanding Mueller’s findings

May 06,2019
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Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.

All democracies confront the following dilemma: Democracy rests on the rule of law, which should apply to top leaders, as well as ordinary citizens — yet presidents and prime ministers have the power to appoint the ministers of justice, prosecutors and high-court judges who could be called on to investigate them and reach judgment on their behavior. How do we hold top leaders accountable if they appear to violate the law?

Korea just lived through such a saga with the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Amid massive demonstrations hung the question of whether judges appointed by conservative presidents would be impartial.

The United States is currently going through a similar trauma, but with a much more ambiguous result. The Mueller investigation was launched with the purpose of understanding Russian interference in the U.S. election, including a sophisticated social media campaign to polarize voters. Yet because of the president’s norm-breaking approach to politics, there was evidence that his own campaign might have conspired with the Russians, or that he himself might have done so.

The Mueller investigation held itself to a very high bar: Did the conduct in question warrant an indictment and conviction under existing law?

On the question of conspiracy, the answer appeared to be no. Examining all contacts the campaign and the president had with the Russians — some contacts that Trump’s team had lied about — the report concluded that there was no criminal conspiracy.
For Republicans, that was the bottom-line of the report: exoneration! But anyone reading the 450-page document with an open mind would be forced to come to a very different conclusion.

First, it is important to underline the most important point, which has gotten lost in the political firestorm. The findings on Russian involvement were clear, and yielded 25 indictments: Russian entities — including a military intelligence unit — did in fact interfere in the U.S. election. Because of Trump’s personal sensitivity to the issue, however, the United States has done precious little to acknowledge and defend against this threat.

Second, it is clear that the president and members of both his family and campaign were open to securing information from the Russians. Indeed, the president himself said publicly that he would welcome the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

But third, the more damning findings of the report center on the obstruction of justice: the efforts by the president to limit the scope of the investigation and even to shut it down altogether. Investigating 10 cases in which such obstruction was possible, the Mueller team found substantial evidence of obstruction, including corrupt intent, in half of them. These included an effort to fire Mueller altogether, an effort that was only blocked because Trump’s top counsel refused to do so.

Yet the Mueller team faced a dilemma. Under U.S. law, a sitting president cannot be indicted; if his crimes are adequately grave, he must be impeached in a process that involves Congress. Mueller therefore reached the conclusion that it would be unfair to say definitively that the president was guilty, precisely because the case could not be litigated.

But the message was clear: rather than exonerating the president, the report provides painful detail on the president’s belief that a legal investigation of his behavior — brought on by his own actions — was politically motivated.

Rather than bringing the question to a close, therefore, the United States is now entering a fraught period of further polarization and the likelihood of a succession of constitutional challenges. Democrats now face the question of whether they should seek to impeach the president. The impeachment process in the United States differs from that in Korea. Rather than involving the Supreme Court, impeachment charges are voted by the House of Representatives — controlled by Democrats — and then judged by the Senate, controlled by Republicans.

The opposition party is divided on the issue. On the one hand, the question will ultimately be resolved by the pending election. Moreover, voters have grown tired of the polarization around these political issues and are demanding action on bread-and-butter issues, like health care.

On the other hand, the conduct of the president in this and many other matters is ethically compromised; for many — myself included — President Trump has fallen short of his oath of office to uphold the rule of law. Not to impeach him would appear a dereliction of duty as well. And presidential candidates are starting to line up more aggressively on the issue. Former Vice President Joe Biden has now entered the race, and while he has been cautious on impeachment, he has focused like a laser on Trump’s moral failings.

The implications for Korea and other allies are a United States that is distracted and even more polarized. Republicans have sought to portray the Mueller report as complete vindication and are furiously spinning conspiracy theories and calling for an investigation of Hillary Clinton.

The efforts to push forward a North Korean deal will hopefully continue. But through the election of 2020, the United States will continue to be a distracted superpower, precisely not what the world needs given the challenges it faces.