Headlines have been dominated by the president over the last several weeks with the release of letters. All of them regarding the Special Counsel investigation into Russian meddling in our elections and to what degree The President of the United States Donald Trump and his surrogates interacted with the Russians.
When the long-awaited submission of the Special Counsel’s Report finally made its way to the attorney general on March 22, it was immediately followed by a letter by Attorney General William Barr dated March 24 to the leadership of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.
In that letter, the attorney general indicated that he was providing a “supplement to the notification provided on Friday, March 22, 2019” and “writing today to advise you with a summary of the principal conclusions reached by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and to inform you about the status of my initial review of the report he prepared.”
In that letter, which preceded the release of the actual report to Congress and the public by some three weeks, Attorney General Barr indicated in this letter that the Special Counsel concluded that Russia did, indeed, interfere in the 2016 election. It did so by conducting “disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord” and by conducting “computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.”
Barr, in his letter, also indicated that the investigation found that no one associated with the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts.”
Regarding the issue of obstruction of justice, Barr decided that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation was not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.”
In making his determination regarding obstruction of justice, Barr noted in this letter that the Special Counsel recognized that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference” and that “while not determinative, the absence of such evidence bears upon the president’s intent with respect to obstruction.”
That is where it gets a bit dicey, dicey enough to necessitate a second letter, a letter dated March 27 from Mueller to Barr.
In this letter, Mueller took great exception to the attorney general’s misrepresentation of the findings in the Special Counsel Report. Specifically, Mueller states in this letter that “the summary letter the department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions…There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.
This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed a Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigation.”
Pretty strong language and a clear criticism of the attorney general’s “summary of principal conclusions” of the report.
So what now? What to believe? How best to understand the findings of the Special Counsel Report and the implications thereof?
Welcome to letter No. 3 signed off by more than 800 former federal prosecutors. Welcome, indeed, since it sheds a bright light on the significance of the findings in the report.
The letter focuses specifically on the issue of obstruction of justice by this president. There was no need to focus on Russian meddling since that was clearly established in Volume I of the Report and not disputed in the Barr summary.
It is the obstruction portion of the report that left next steps open due to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel’s policy of not indicting a sitting president and which Mueller made clear was a deciding factor in not seeking an indictment of Trump.
In this letter, the former federal prosecutors, who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, arrived at the conclusion that “the conduct of president Trump described Mueller’s report would, in case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”
They go on to state that the Mueller Report “describes several acts that satisfy all of the elements for an obstruction charge: conduct that obstructed or attempted to obstruct the truth-finding process, as to which the evidence of corrupt intent and connection to pending proceedings is overwhelming.”
Specifically, they cite three distinct areas of activity to support their position. First, “the president’s efforts to fire Mueller and to falsify evidence about that effort.” This, they point out, is established when Trump directed then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and also to concoct “false conflicts of interest as a pretext for getting rid of the Special Counsel.” Trump compounded this with “repeated efforts to have McGahn deny the story” once word got out even going so far as to tell McGahn to “write a letter for our files” falsely denying that Trump had directed Mueller’s firing.
The second area of activity to support the position taken by the prosecutors is Trump’s attempts to limit Mueller’s investigation. This is established by Trump’s efforts to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions unrecuse himself from the investigation. Then, when Sessions refused to unrecuse, Trump, according to the Mueller Report, took great strides to have Sessions limit the scope of the investigation to future elections and not the last election.
As indicated in the report, “substantial evidence indicates that the president’s efforts to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the president’ and his campaign’s conduct.”
The last area of activity considered as definitive by the prosecutors regarding the case for obstruction of justice by this president is the area of witness tampering and intimidation. To this, the prosecutors pointed to Trump’s attempts to “influence the decisions of both Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen concerning cooperating with investigators.” This included the “dangling of pardons.”
For more than 800 former prosecutors from administrations on both sides of the aisle to come together to raise their collective voices should not be looked upon lightly. This is a serious matter, and every citizen should take it as seriously as these 800 former prosecutors.
Trump has done more to divide this country than just about anyone since the Civil War, but maybe, just maybe, bringing together these 800 former prosecutors in unity of purpose can serve as an example of what working together can look like when it is done for the common good.