Scott Brinton

Why we must reflect on the Mueller Report

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Amid all the mind-numbing debate over the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s Ukraine doings in recent weeks, somehow the Mueller Report got lost — or at least its findings did.

Why, I must ask, do the cable pundits keep treating it as if it were all for naught? As if it were, to borrow a phrase from Rudy Giuliani, a nothing burger?

The Mueller report was not nothing, and neither is the impeachment inquiry. In each case, there is a there there, as the pundits might say.

There was considerable hype and hoopla surrounding the release of the Mueller Report in April. Would it find Trump colluded with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election? When the report concluded that he did not, all of the air was sucked out of the debate over the president’s ethics — or lack thereof. It was as if he had done no wrong.

The national media, particularly the left-leaning cable networks, once again found themselves questioning their reporting, largely because too many pundits had pronounced, with a high degree of certainty, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team would conclude that Trump and the Russians had, in fact, colluded. That left them reeling with embarrassment, and the president gloating. It was all a hoax, he claimed.

It was not, however. As we enter an impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine question, we should take a moment, or three, to reflect on that.

The Mueller team was tasked with investigating two key questions: whether the Russians had interfered with the 2016 election, and whether Trump had obstructed justice in an attempt to sidetrack Mueller’s inquiry into Russian meddling.

On the first count, the Mueller Report concluded, definitively, that the Russians had interfered with the election. That interference “is not a hoax,” Mueller testified before Congress on July 24.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas and a former CIA officer, asked if the Russians had tried only once to meddle in the election, or if they had tried or would try again. “It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller said. “They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

The next morning, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Zelensky agreed to lend Trump a hand — that is, the leader of a foreign country agreed to interfere in our election.

Let me repeat: We have, in an official White House transcript, the president soliciting the assistance of a foreign leader in seeking political dirt on one of his rivals, and said leader agreeing to do so. That this happened is not in question. Trump admits it.

That is, he admits to the very act — colluding with a foreign government, albeit in a nation other than Russia — that led to the two-year Mueller probe.

One would rightly ask, why would Trump be so reckless? I mean, really, the morning after Mueller testified before Congress?

Perhaps the president wasn’t as reckless as he was emboldened. Perhaps the Mueller probe left him feeling untouchable. Trump perceived the special counsel’s report — or at least tweeted about it — as a “total exoneration,” when it was anything but.

On the charge of obstruction of justice, Mueller made a point to say that his report did not exonerate the president. However, under longstanding Department of Justice policy, he could not charge the president with a crime.

In remarks on May 29, Mueller stated, “[A] president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. The Special Counsel’s Office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

And so Trump wasn’t charged.

Can I say with certainty that Trump felt emboldened? Can anyone say? Of course not. No one can say what he is thinking. We can, however, look to his actions. The president asked Zelensky to aid his re-election effort by seeking mud to sling at a political rival only two months after Mueller uttered those words — and less than 24 hours after Mueller testified before Congress. If that isn’t emboldened, what is?

Let’s also not forget for a second that the Mueller team charged 37 defendants, including three companies, and secured seven guilty pleas and one conviction at trial. Six former Trump associates and advisers were charged with crimes, including:

• Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman;

• Rick Gates, his former campaign aide and Manafort’s business partner;

• George Papadopoulos, his former campaign foreign policy adviser;

• Michael Cohen, his former attorney;

• Roger Stone, his longtime adviser;

• Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser.

These are the facts. As a nation, we must proceed on the facts. And we must never let this happen again.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.