Opinion

Faced with Trump’s misdeeds, ‘the system’ failed

AG Barr: Russian operatives didn’t have cooperation of Trump or his campaign

Before Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report was made public on April 18, 2019, Attorney General William Barr said, "...The Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump."
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Before Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report was made public on April 18, 2019, Attorney General William Barr said, "...The Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump."

The salient news from the l Mueller Report, aside from personal details, is that Donald Trump failed in his usual ambition to co-opt the justice system to his personal advantage. But not for want of trying.

If the Democrats hadn’t swept the House last November, he and his rubber-stamp attorney general might have gotten away with a shredded and propagandized (“redacted”) version of Mueller’s report. instead, we have a vivid picture of a chaotic White House and a self-serving presidency,.

The lingering question is what can be done about it.

Mueller offers a picture of the Trump monkey business that is already stale. His answer to the paramount question — Did the Russians meddle in the 2016 presidential election? — is an emphatic “yes,” though not, he declines to conclude, with the collaboration of Trump’s campaign. As to that secondary issue Mueller offers a veiled response. Mueller conscientiously pondered the evidence but fell back on a cautious answer — that a sitting president can’t be criminally indicted before impeachment and ejection. This is literal constitutional fundamentalism, although in Trump’s case rather beside the point. His predecessor Leon Jaworski, the second Watergate special counsel, conceived the more imaginative charge that Nixon was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in criminal mischief.

And what of Trump? In the 2016 campaign, and in his cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, he has made no secret of his plea for Kremlin support — in one instance openly calling for Russian assistance with the bogus issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Putin has since confirmed his favoritism.

The somewhat anticlimactic outcome of Mueller’s probe underscores once again that special prosecutors are poor substitutes for the performance of congressional duties. The contrast with Watergate is striking. Special prosecutors did their part. And when Richard Nixon was finally brought to book and ousted it was boasted that the “system worked” — meaning checks and balances inherent to a tripartite government of independent branches. It also included the dogged reporting of The Washington Post and substantial leaking by the FBI. But the decisive contrast lies in a party system not then, four decades ago, so warped by partisan spirit as to ignore dutiful checks of executive power. The impeachment charges against Nixon, heard out by the House, gained substantial GOP votes. The Senate Select Committee, chaired by Sam Ervin Jr., found a working Republican ally in Sen. Howard Baker, who famously asked, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” (The answer was “plenty and soon”)

Nixon knew when his hour had struck and resigned. Trump, his gross unfitness whitewashed by Attorney General William Barr, is in no danger of removal. What stands out is the concession of constitutional responsibility to a special counsel who has no means of exercising it — or at least believes he hasn’t. For two years, as Trump subverted regulatory bodies, canceled treaties and trade agreements and wooed crafty adversaries like Putin and Kim Jong Un, the cry in Washington has been “Mueller will fix it”’; but political disorders can’t be fixed this way.

“Political”: (in the proper sense) is the key term. The constitutional fallback of impeachment has never functioned as its designers intended. “(High) misdemeanors,” meaning grave infractions and abuses short of crime, have been ignored, as they are now. Impeachment has evolved into a trial system whose premise is that gross presidential misbehavior is not impeachable unless it takes the form of statutory criminality. Trump’s contempt for custom and constitutional regularity escapes discipline — not withstanding a special prosecutor’s report that documents a troubled era of lies and misrule.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is retired after a career as an editor and reporter in Washington, D.C.

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