After Mueller, Congress Already Sparring Over Next Steps

GOP seems likely to resist further investigations, but agreement is possible on preventing future Russian espionage.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
AP Photo/Jon Elswick
April 18, 2019, 6:30 p.m.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential wrongdoing by President Trump and his aides is finally public after nearly two years. But the work to fully understand the 2016 election is far from over.

As Washington pours over the findings of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in 2016, it falls to Congress to answer two key questions: To what extent can evidence of obstruction of justice be used against Trump, and how should the United States prevent another episode of international cyberespionage?

Mueller’s team wrote that they “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president's conduct” because they “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” And yet, they added, “Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president's corrupt exercise of the powers of office,” consistent with our system of checks and balances.

At a press conference in Manhattan on Thursday afternoon, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler seemed to relish the task of following Mueller’s breadcrumbs. “It is clear the special counsel’s office conducted an incredibly thorough investigation in order to preserve the evidence for future investigators,” he said. “The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president, and the responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions.”

Democrats on Thursday hung onto Mueller’s detail of “substantial evidence” that Trump attempted to obstruct justice, citing 10 cases in which Trump privately or publicly pushed back against the investigation, including his attempts to remove Mueller.

On the bold-face questions of the investigation—namely the degree of “coordination” between members of Trump’s team and Russians to interfere in the election, as well as evidence of obstruction of justice—Republicans hoped to turn the page. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that it’s “time to move on” from “the 22-month-long Mueller investigation that ultimately found no collusion.”

But Congress’s congressional responsibilities don’t end Thursday: Nadler said impeachment proceedings were still a “possibility.” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said that he hopes to release “the first of our final reports in the coming weeks” on the committee’s own findings.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, also urged the Intelligence Committee to “thoroughly investigate counterintelligence, including Donald Trump’s financial entanglements with the Russians, issues that were outside the scope of the special counsel’s inquiry.”

“I personally think that the report should close that chapter,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters in Washington, “and I look forward to the Intelligence Committee report closing the other chapter, as it relates to past activity by the Russians.”

Indeed, assessing past crimes by Russians and attempting to prevent a reprise in future elections may be the only opportunity for bipartisanship to emerge from Thursday’s political intrigue.

Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said that Mueller’s conclusions required that Trump and Congress “must take further action to protect our democracy going forward.”

Blunt agreed, saying that “we should be on guard against future activity by” overseas operatives, especially given that they “can now see how easy it is to impact our process far beyond the impact of the immediate moment.”

In the meantime, Democratic leadership clamored Thursday to bring Mueller to testify before Congress, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling it “the only way to begin restoring public trust in the handling of the Special Counsel’s investigation.” Nadler in a letter Thursday urged Mueller to appear before his committee “no later than May 23.”

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee, in a statement said she was “pleased” that Barr had “no objection” to allowing Mueller to speak to Congress.

Other Senate Republicans were less eager to bring Mueller before a public hearing. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told McClatchy that he is “not interested” in making a similar request, despite Senate Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein’s urging he do so. Barr is already scheduled to address the Senate and House Judiciary Committees on May 1 and 2, respectively.

“The job of the special counsel is to report his findings to the attorney general,” Blunt said. “I’m neutral whether he should come and talk about his findings.”

Graham instead has repeatedly said his intention is to investigate “the other side of the story,” as he put it last month, meaning the next stage will include Republican oversight of warrants the FBI obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to investigate the Trump campaign. Barr, who told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that he wants “to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance,” said Thursday he is talking to Graham and Nadler about Congress's "legitimate oversight interest with respect to" Mueller's investigation.

As Congress weighs its next steps, they’ll learn more about what is contained in the 448-page report. Without specifying a timeline, Barr said he intends to provide to lawmakers of both parties a version of the report with all redactions removed with the exception of those related to grand-jury investigations.

Appearing not to trust Barr, Nadler said he would subpoena “the full report and the underlying materials,” a call for transparency echoed throughout the day by Feinstein, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Mark Warner, and candidates for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020.

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