Roger Niesen

The Mueller Report is confusing and has resulted in a confused political response. Let’s see if I understand this correctly.

In the executive summary (Volume I), Mueller finds that Trump and his campaign staff invited Russian intervention in the campaign, had various meetings with Russian officials and agents, hoped to secure stolen information about the opponent’s campaign, concealed business dealings in Russia, deleted communications, and lied about these efforts to the Department of Justice and to Congress. As there was no specific agreement made which would constitute coordination, and because of the lies and the information that were withheld, there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in the campaign with conspiracy, being an unregistered foreign agent, or campaign contribution violations.

The report also finds (Volume II) that President Trump sought to interfere with the investigation by firing staff, directing staff to fire subordinate staff, directing staff to lie, influencing witnesses, attempting to curtail the investigation and getting rid of the special prosecutor. He was unsuccessful in this effort partly because White House staff did not follow his directives.

The crime of obstruction of justice requires the element of corrupt intent, which would have to be inferred from the evidence and might have changed over the course of the investigation. The report did not infer that intent. Because of that, and also, because the DOJ does not indict sitting presidents, they did not charge President Trump.

Attorney General William Barr presented a four page summary of the conclusions to Congress. Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrote to Barr objecting that Barr’s summary was too brief to convey the sense of the report, that neither charged nor exonerated the president. Sure enough, the press and the body politic were confused, and went wild.

When Barr later made a press presentation before releasing the report, he explained his decision there was no obstruction of justice based on evidence that President Trump’s motive was anger and frustration, rather than corrupt intent.

So we have the president’s supporters claiming he is innocent of any crime because he 1) has inadequate emotional management, 2) has too little behavioral self-control, 3) may not understand the laws, and 4) is ineffectual in his executive direction. These are arguments President Trump’s supporters do not usually make. They may feel that since there was “no collusion” there could be no obstruction of justice.

And we have the president’s critics claiming that he is guilty of crimes because he 1) is emotionally stable enough to be acting deliberately, 2) has sufficient self-control to be accountable, 3) is sufficiently knowledgeable about the law, and 4) is competent in taking actions and giving directions that may violate those laws. These are arguments President Trump’s critics do not usually make. They may feel he has deliberately obstructed justice in the same contentious manner that he conducted his private business.

It seems that since a president cannot be indicted, it is left to Congress to hold him or her to legal standards and expectations. And it seems that if either house of Congress has a majority supportive of the president, and not inclined to vote against him or her, the president is indeed above the law.

What is Congress’s obligation by their oaths of office to do with a president who apparently intended and tried to engage in illegal activity but failed? Is that president innocent or guilty? Morally and competently fit for office or not? Is the bar for “high crimes and misdemeanors” the same as for regular statutory law, or does Congress have more latitude to make judgements about suitability for office as well as specific crimes?

This is confusing. I really don’t know which to believe. But this is my understanding of the situation. And I have to wonder, have I got this right?

Roger Niesen lives in Crescent City.

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