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Matthew Stokes: Mueller comes to Congress

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

The problem with summer reading lists is they are rarely finished. These days they’re usually created for the purpose of humble bragging on social media. One book that I’ve been browsing for a while was a blockbuster for a moment, but has faded from the public conversation. That book is the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, more commonly known as the Mueller Report.  

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees this Wednesday July 24. A lot has happened since the release of the report this past spring, and Mueller’s public testimony is likely to reignite debate over the events of 2016.  Americans have had heard about the report, and a few have even read it, but television is a medium that lends itself to drama and persuasion. Political observers have noted that President Richard Nixon’s approval rating remained relatively high after the Watergate story broke, but as televised hearings got underway in the summer in 1973, public opinion turned against him. That’s not an argument for impeachment, but it is important to remember the effect that this week’s testimony could have.

In the meantime, the report itself has been public for three months.  Free copies have been available in printed and audio format, and a book copy can be had for very little cost.  Though Congress was provided a copy, it was discouraging to read a recent Politico piece that saw several members of Congress, from both parties, admit that they had yet to read the report.  This is a remarkable thing, though I’m not entirely surprised.  

Closer to home, it is heartening to know that Alabama’s congressional delegation has not ignored the matter. I contacted all of Alabama’s total delegation; of our nine total senators and representatives, I heard back from seven of them, and all said they had read all or part of the report. 

Members of Congress, like the public itself, are susceptible to the narrative that all of this will inevitably come to nothing. But are we so sure? It is true that the Mueller Report did not come to a conclusion of the President’s guilt, but it is also clear that it did not exonerate him.  Instead, Mueller’s report is clear, and much of the commentary around it echoes this point, that it is still the role of Congress to pursue these investigations in keeping with its Constitutional duties. While the combined weight of this week’s testimony and the recent subpoenas to current and former members of the Trump administration may feel like a circus, they are a very real part of Congressional oversight of the executive. 

The report is divided into two volumes.  The first volume details the extent of Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, with specific attention paid to the social media disinformation managed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the numerous Russian attempts to connect with candidate Trump, and the work of Russian hackers to obtain and release the emails of HiIlary Clinton and officials at the Democratic National Committee. Volume two concerns President Trump’s response to the Special Counsel’s investigation, including numerous occasions of possible obstruction of justice.  

There are two things to note. Regarding the first volume, Mueller indicated in a public statement on May 29 that the efforts to interfere with American elections were not limited to 2016; they are ongoing and demand the nation’s attention.  Concerning the second volume, Mueller was clear that his office never made a decision on the obstruction questions for a few reasons. First was the long standing Justice Department practice that said a sitting president could not be indicted.  That also meant it would be inappropriate to accuse the president while he would be unable to properly defend himself. This is a long-standing legal tradition in our nation. Lastly, the report was clear that the investigation could not fully exonerate the president of those charges. In both cases, Mueller’s report hands the ball off to Congress.  

Mueller was limited in his scope; Congress is not. Mueller could not continue his investigation forever; Congress can. Mueller could not indict a sitting President; Congress can by way of impeachment.  None of this is to say that Congress should impeach President Trump. Instead, Robert Mueller has handed Congress a thorough report about some very disturbing behavior on the part of one of our geopolitical rivals as well as the President and those who helped get him elected. Congress would be derelict in its duties if it failed to further explore the evidence. I suspect that Mueller will suggest as much when he testifies before the House.

It is tempting to pass off the whole matter as partisan wrangling, but we should push past that inclination. The question that should haunt us is this:  “how would you react if the other party was found to have engaged in this behavior?” That’s not a “gotcha” game. It’s a real concern. Our country is based not simply on laws but on norms and traditions. If your side gets away with sticking a foot over the line, someone else will almost certainly stick both feet over in the future. In order to ensure fairness and honesty in both the electoral process and officeholders, Congress must not abdicate its responsibilities.  

The House committees set to interview Robert Mueller should put aside the desire to impress their partisan constituencies. Instead, push Mueller towards a detailed explanation of his report, its methods, and its sources. The country needs a clear airing of foreign interference and the White House’s missteps. It is the only way Americans can make an informed judgment of the incumbent President next fall.

Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News.  He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at @yellingstopal.

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