On Tuesday morning, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stood on the Senate floor and called for his colleagues — and for America — to begin the process of moving on from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
McConnell said it was time to “stop endlessly re-litigating a two-and-a-half-year-old election result and move forward for the American people,” repeating a common Republican talking point that Democrats pursued the investigation because they disliked President Donald Trump winning.
In reality, the investigation was about how Russia interfered in the presidential election and whether the Trump campaign may have helped.
McConnell claimed that the Mueller report exonerated the president. It does not. Rather, it failed to establish a criminal conspiracy to work with Russia to swing the election, although it laid out evidence that the campaign expected such help and benefited from it. And the report lays out ten instances of potential obstruction of justice by the president, leaving it to Congress to decide how to proceed (such as with impeachment).
But even as the Senate majority leader attempts to move on from the Mueller investigation, and stash its findings down the memory hole, the fallout from the investigation is far from over, and its political impact is only now being seen.
For instance, Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, first misled the public by spinning the contents of the Mueller report, which prompted criticism from Mueller himself. When a redacted version of the report was released, Barr laid out a number of defenses as to why the president hadn’t actually attempted to obstruct justice, despite Trump having repeatedly asked his staff to fire Mueller or interfere with the investigation. Barr cited the president’s “frustration” over the investigation and the theory that the president had the right to fire Mueller (contrary to a judge’s findings during Watergate). Last week, he refused to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, and he and his office refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena to release the un-redacted Mueller report.
Now, for only the second time in American history, the House has begun moving toward holding a sitting member of the president’s cabinet in contempt.
On Monday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced that the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would be holding a vote to cite Barr with contempt, a decision that will then move to a full House vote. While the move appears largely symbolic (it’s difficult for the House to enforce a contempt citation), it ratchets tensions between Congress and the White House considerably. Given that the House could still file formal suit against Barr to demand the unredacted report, congressional efforts to gain access to all of Mueller’s findings could drag on for years, contrary to McConnell’s claims that this chapter has closed.
Barr also presents a potential target for congressional Democrats to express their frustration, and to enforce their oversight mechanisms, in another way: impeachment. While some Democratic presidential nominees have called for Barr’s resignation, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), others such as former Obama cabinet official Julián Castro have called outright for the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Barr.
While any impeachment vote would likely come after contempt proceedings begin, the move would indicate the congressional appetite for impeaching the current president. The notion of impeaching Trump has split congressional Democrats: newcomers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have already come out in favor of removing the president from office, while the older guard like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have chosen to focus instead on 2020 elections as a means of removal from office.
As with the contempt proceedings, a pivot toward impeaching Trump would be largely symbolic, given the current make-up of the Republican-held Senate. Still, it would be the first time in nearly a quarter-century that a Democratic Congress had pushed for impeaching a Republican president. The president during last time such a move took place? Richard Nixon.
Even beyond the political questions, the fallout from the 2016 election — both in terms of Mueller’s findings, as well as the cases spun off from the Mueller investigation — shows no sign of ceasing anytime soon. All told, Mueller’s team spun off over a dozen separate cases pertaining to the special counsel’s investigation.
Some of those cases have already completed, resulting in convictions and jail time. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and the former deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, recently began serving a three-year jail sentence for, among other things, campaign finance violations stemming from hush-money payments made on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 campaign. The president, Barr confirmed in Congress last week, is an un-indicted co-conspirator in a campaign-finance violation in this case, which saw him direct an illegal hush-money payment to an adult film actress to cover up their affair in order to help his election chances.
Still more cases and investigations into the president remain open: New York’s attorney general is investigating alleged criminal malfeasance by the president through the Trump organization, including bank, tax, and insurance fraud. The president’s charitable organization is also under investigation, and his inaugural committee is the focus of a money-laundering probe. A Trump SuperPAC was probed for alleged financial malfeasance. Investigators are reviewing complaints of labor violations at at least one of Trump’s golf courses, and a lawsuit is moving forward against the president for allegedly violating the Emoluments Clause of the constitution.
These are on top of the congressional investigations the president faces. Nearly every House committee is investigating aspects of the president’s business, charities, campaign, and government practices. The Treasury has stonewalled Congress in handing over copies of the president’s tax returns, ensuring a legal showdown over those records.
McConnell may have been right when he said on Tuesday it felt like “a Groundhog Day spectacle” to see the president subjected to so many investigations, but he was totally wrong when he said “it’s finally over.”