Americas

Mueller's fine work softened the ground for impeachment hearing

As the impeachment inquiry has built momentum, there have been not-so-subtle comparisons between the Ukraine scandal and the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Several House Republicans have referred to the impeachment inquiry as a low-rent sequel to the underwhelming Russia investigation. It’s a cute line, but 70pc of the US thinks that Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine were wrong, so that dog won’t hunt.

The more interesting comparisons come from the mainstream media, who make the opposite point: the Ukraine scandal demonstrates the shortcomings of Mueller’s investigation.

Chuck Todd, of ‘Meet the Press’, for example, has suggested that the political failure of the Mueller probe haunts the impeachment inquiry: Democrats “are so afraid of the politics of the Mueller report that I think they’re avoiding what are obvious issues with Russia”.

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An even better example is the ‘New York Times’ David Leonhardt, who has argued repeatedly that “Mueller’s convoluted report was a gift to Trump. Mueller’s long investigation uncovered extensive evidence of a president who had broken the law and abused his power, but Mueller did almost nothing to hold the president accountable.”

In Leonhardt’s eyes, Mueller pulled his punches because he “prized his reputation for floating above partisan politics”. He therefore compares unfavourably to the more courageous trio of Marie Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor and George Kent.

Leonhardt is hardly the only commentator to perceive Mueller and his report as producing a “swing and miss on Russia”.

None of this makes any sense to me. Mueller was never going to swoop into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and put the cuffs on Trump. As a Department of Justice employee bound by department guidelines that affirm a sitting president cannot be indicted, he never had the authority to do that.

Furthermore, Mueller was never going to go beyond what the evidence said, which was why he did not conclude that the Trump campaign conspired with a foreign power to influence the campaign.

What Mueller did do, under intense political pressure, was his job. He reported out what he learnt, which was significant.

He successfully prosecuted a number of Trump officials. He farmed out investigations peripheral to his remit to other elements of the DOJ so as to avoid accusations of overreach. He assembled a pretty overwhelming case that Trump repeatedly and knowingly attempted to obstruct justice by interfering in the investigation. He pushed back when Attorney General William Barr mischaracterised the conclusions in his report.

He did all of this in under two years, which is quicker than the average length of a special counsel/special prosecutor investigation.

Mueller perfectly fits the mould of public servants that ‘New York Times’ columnist David Brooks described as “generally not all that interested in partisan politics but deeply committed to the process and substance of good government”. Indeed, Mueller proved himself to be far better at draining the swamp than Trump ever was.

Leonhardt and others seem to believe that had Mueller been more forceful, perhaps that would have swayed Congress and the public to support impeachment sooner. This was never Mueller’s job, however, just as it was not the job of Yovanovitch, Kent or Taylor to lobby for impeachment.

Mueller gave Congress a road map for what it could do in response to Trump’s transgressions; he was never going to drive the car as well.

In retrospect, Todd is incorrect to say the Mueller probe has hamstrung the impeachment inquiry – or, rather, his analysis is incomplete.

Mueller’s report softened the ground – it made it more conceivable to believe that Trump would abuse his power in other parts of his presidency. (© Washington Post)

Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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