If you believe in Old Testament-style omens, please note that a plague of poisonous toads has infested the Florida town of Palm Beach Gardens, about 15 miles from Mar-a-Lago. And they’re on the move.
I am not making this up.
You have to admit that killer toads are a much more dramatic and appropriate harbinger of doom than the way the conclusions of the Mueller report were first rolled out this weekend. Late Friday afternoon, word came that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had delivered his report on Donald Trump to Attorney General William Barr. Barr then sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees saying he’d let them know more as soon as he’d had time to study it. He’d also issue a summary to the public. And there would be no further indictments issued.
After all these months, that big moment seemed anticlimactic, a pop gun when we what we wanted was the cannon’s roar.
On these few flimsy facts were spun hour after hour of cable news coverage over the weekend. But on Sunday afternoon came the three-and-a-half page letter to the judiciary committees from the attorney general. This time, the gun was loaded, loud and had a recoiling kick; no evidence of Trump conspiring with Russia around the 2016 elections and although Mueller did not exonerate the president on charges of obstruction of justice, Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein decided there was no reason to charge him.
And so the appointment of Bill Barr to replace Jeff Sessions paid off big time for Donald J. Trump. Barr did just what the president wanted him to do and what the attorney general had intimated he would do when he wrote that unsolicited 19-page memo to the Department of Justice last year, the one stating that a sitting president can’t be guilty of obstruction or interviewed about such a charge by prosecutors unless there’s proof of a crime he was trying to obstruct. Which there can't be because he's president. Follow?
This Catch-22 logic was described as “bizarre” by former acting solicitor general Neal Kaytal, who writes in The New York Times, “That memo made the argument that the obstruction of justice statute does not apply to the president because the text of the statute doesn’t specifically mention the president. Of course, the murder statute doesn’t mention the president either, but no one thinks the president can’t commit murder.” (Keeping in mind that we have a chief executive who thinks he can get away with gunning down the innocent on Fifth Avenue.)
Nonetheless, Barr has gone ahead with this argument, which makes it all the more important we demand that the entire Mueller report be released, including the cases made by the special counsel both pro and con as to whether to go after the president for criminal obstruction. Don't let Barr stonewall on Trump's behalf. Further, both Mueller and Barr must be called before Congress to testify about the process by which the report was created, the findings within, why Mueller opted to punt when it came to obstruction and why Barr with Rosenstein’s assist made his decision so hastily, less than 48 hours after he received Mueller’s document.
There are a lot of other things I’d like to know and not just what Mueller found that merits or precludes obstruction charges. Mueller reports that neither Trump nor anyone on his campaign team directly conspired with the Russians to mess with the 2016 election, although we know for sure that Russia did actively interfere on Trump’s behalf. If what we're told is in the Mueller report is true, Russia seems to have behaved under unofficial rules not unlike those meant to govern an American Super PAC – actively working on behalf of its chosen candidate but without having any interaction with that candidate’s official campaign (nudge nudge, wink wink).
So why, of all the GOP presidential candidates, did Russia vector in on Trump as their guy? Why did Trump’s campaign aides keep lying about contacts they had with Russians – and why did they not run to the authorities when they were approached? Why the alteration of the pro-Ukraine plank in the GOP 2016 party platform? And once the election was over, if there was no quid pro quo, why the rush to ease or prevent sanctions against Russia, why the continued coziness with Putin and why does Trump’s man crush on Vlad have him constantly believing whatever the Russian leader tells him, despite contradictory evidence from our own intelligence services?
As Trump and company jubilantly proclaim victory and vindication after Sunday's announcement, however premature that might be, and as he demands retribution in his usual toad-like way, there are other things to keep in mind. Many noted, for example, that the slow trickle of indictments and guilty pleas since 2017 had in some way diminished the impact of and magnitude of what already has been accomplished, which is a lot. Just ask Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and Michael Cohen.
Journalist Mehdi Hasan tweeted, “Imagine, just imagine, if Mueller had been silent for past 2 years, held everything back, & then on Fri evening, announced 37 (!) indictments, including of Trump's lawyer, national security adviser & campaign manager. We'd be in shock. The White House would be in chaos & crisis.”
And David Kris, an ex-national security division chief at the Department of Justice told The Washington Post, ““It’s so much, it’s so gradual, it’s so complicated, people don’t have a chance to sort of pause, catch their breath and really sort of survey the whole story that [Mueller has] found. I think if you took it all in in one day, it would kill you. It’s simply too much.”
Further, there are several congressional investigations of the president and his courtiers that have begun, probes that go beyond Mueller’s mandate, with more to come. Remember that an impeachable offense does not have to be something that goes against the literal letter of the law but which violates the spirit of the law. It can be a misuse of high office for personal gain, or abuse of the constitution and the rights guaranteed within. Or it can even relate to the discovery that the person America elected indeed has always been a thoroughgoing crook of a businessman, unfit for office.
Whether Democrats deem it impolitic to continue pursuing the possibility of impeachment and prefer to await the results of the 2020 election remains to be seen but it’s worth keeping in mind the words of historian and journalist Yoni Appelbaum, who while advocating for it in the March issue of The Atlantic, writes that impeachment “is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses. And, crucially, many of its benefits -- to the political health of the country, to the stability of the constitutional system -- accrue irrespective of its ultimate result. Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial…
“Only by authorizing a dedicated impeachment inquiry can the House begin to assemble disparate allegations into a coherent picture, forcing lawmakers to consider both whether specific charges are true and whether the president’s abuses of his power justify his removal.” Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, long way until Inauguration Day 2021. There’s so much more damage Trump can do between now and then. And he stands a good chance of reelection.
What’s more, never forget there also are multiple criminal lawsuits going on in federal and state courts, many of them have spun off from evidence uncovered when the Mueller team began looking under the rocks -- from hush money payments and money laundering to violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause to possible financial flimflam at Trump’s inauguration committee. And leave us not forget Roger Stone, whose trial is scheduled to begin in November.
Finally and most important, we must address the reality that Donald Trump is not only the carrier but also a symptom of the greater disease that infects the republic, one in which vast inequality and a government controlled by private and corporate wealthy interests and not the people drives us toward our certain doom both as a democracy and a planet.
If we do not confront this head on, Trump and his bullys win, Pyrrhic though their victory may be. The toxic toads will have their way.