It was clear from the moment his attorney general, Bill Barr, began spinning the contents of the document in a press conference before the release of the redacted version in April that the White House was attempting to take control of the narrative so that Trump could go in to the 2020 election with the slogan “no collusion.”
But when the document, even in its redacted form, came out, it was clear that this narrative was not as clear-cut as the White House would like to have us believe. Mueller may have declined to make a recommendation for indictment of the president by the Department of Justice, there is plenty of evidence that he may have intended Congress to indict him through impeachment. Certainly, the document contains boatloads of damning evidence that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offence, even setting aside the fact that it concludes incontrovertibly that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Now, tension is rising between House Democrats and President Donald Trump as the post-Mueller-report battle to control the narrative increases in intensity.
In response to a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee, Trump claimed executive privilege for the first time to prevent the full release of the unredacted Mueller report to Congress – a document that he has previously described as a “complete and total exoneration” of him from any wrongdoing.
The committee, led by Democratic representative Jerry Nadler, is now set to challenge Trump’s claim of privilege in the courts, and they have also summoned Bob Mueller himself to testify, though not yet subpoenaed him.
Following that, the Senate Intelligence Committee – intriguingly, controlled by Republicans – summoned the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, to testify, in what will also likely be a blockbuster televised hearing.
Kenneth F. McCallion, a former federal prosecutor and author of the new book Treason & Betrayal: The Rise and Fall of Individual-1, tells me that it is “almost a foregone conclusion” that the courts “will not uphold Trump’s blunderbuss assertion of executive privilege, especially since Trump has announced his bad-faith intention of not complying in any way whatsoever with any congressional subpoenas.”
“The sole purpose is to delay production of the documents and witnesses as long as possible, and to ‘run out the clock’ so that as the calendar gets closer to the 2020 election, impeachment proceedings seem pointless or just a partisan Democratic tactic,” McCallion says, adding that he believes the case will likely end up before the Supreme Court relatively quickly.
The relevant case law they will be bringing to bear is from US vs Nixon, from when president Richard Nixon attempted to assert executive privilege in order to prevent the release of taped recordings he made of conversations pertaining to the Watergate scandal. “If the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon could not withhold the Watergate tapes on executive privilege grounds, then almost certainly the federal courts would not permit the White House to withhold document that it has already turned over to the Special Counsel’s office in truckloads,” McCallion says.
These might include emails leading up to the decision to fire James Comey as FBI Director, or the decision to allow Michael Flynn to call Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to tell him to tell Putin to ignore the Obama Administration’s new sanctions in retaliation for Russian interference with the 2016 election, and hinting that Trump would reverse those sanctions once he was sworn in.
Trump, meanwhile, is trying to turn things around against the Democrats. “There are “No High Crimes & Misdemeanors,” No Collusion, No Conspiracy, No Obstruction. ALL THE CRIMES ARE ON THE OTHER SIDE, and that’s what the Dems should be looking at, but they won’t. Nevertheless, the tables are turning!” he tweeted on 6 May. Two days later he tweeted that the Mueller investigation (again, the same investigation he claims to have resulted in a “total exoneration”) was a “TREASONOUS HOAX.”
The ratcheting-up of rhetoric by the president is a dangerous sign of what the next election might look like. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned Democrats on 6 May that they should stay in the centre-ground because anything other than an overwhelming victory might cause Trump to contest the election results in November 2020. But as calls for impeachment increase along with Trump’s “treason” rhetoric, it seems more and more likely that this president will contest the result whatever the eventual outcome.
That’s a terrifying thought. But it is the new normal in Trump’s America.