What did the President know and what did he do?

WASHINGTON—Howard Baker’s famous question during the Watergate investigations was “What did the president know and when did he know it?” For Donald Trump, add a third question: “What did he do about it?”

Your answer to that question can help you decide whether now-GOP President Trump obstructed justice – and should be impeached for it.

The first section of the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller sets out in detail Putin’s manipulation – or worse – of the 2016 presidential election, in favor of GOP nominee Trump and against his Democratic foe, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Blow by blow, meeting by meeting, bot by bot and e-mail leak by e-mail leak, that part of Mueller’s report details not only the Putin-backed actions but also the Trump campaign’s reactions to them.

Sometimes it was denial, as in his answer to the question by Russian operative/spy Maria Buttina in Las Vegas. Often it was glee. Sometimes it was retweeting. Once it was Trump himself egging the Russians on to find and release Clinton’s e-mails.

And while Trump’s campaign accepted, and used, the help from the Putin oligarchs, it didn’t conspire to get it, Mueller’s report says. Doing so would have been a federal crime, it adds.

As for Trump himself, he kept denying that Russian aid, until after the election. Then the picture changed – and that’s Part II of Mueller’s report.

In public, President Trump continued to deny knowledge of the Russians’ role. In private, he undertook continuous efforts – up to and including telling staffers to lie, firing FBI Director James Comey, and ordering his Special Counsel Dan McGahn, twice, to fire Mueller – to thwart the investigations.

Is that obstruction of justice? Trump’s hand-picked successor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, William Barr, says “no.” Mueller ducked. “We determined not to apply an approach that potentially could result in a judgment that the president committed crimes,” the report says on Page 214.

“Fairness counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought” because of the 1999 Justice Department ruling that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “A prosecutor’s judgment that crimes were committed, but that no charges will be brought, affords no adversarial opportunity for public name-clearing” in a trial.

That doesn’t mean Trump gets off scot-free. On that same page, Mueller states: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards we are unable to reach that judgment.

“Accordingly, while this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

But the data Mueller’s probers produced clearly say otherwise. They include:

Trump demanded Comey end the probe and specifically drop the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian operatives. He also demanded “loyalty” from Comey, at a one-on-one meeting after Trump ordered Sessions out of the room. Comey refused to drop the probe and refused the loyalty oath demand, and Trump later fired him.

“In analyzing whether these statements constitute an obstructive act, a threshold question is whether Comey’s account of the interaction is accurate, and, if so, whether the president’s statements had the tendency to impede the administration of justice by shutting down an inquiry that could result in a grand jury investigation and criminal charge…Substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account,” the report says.

Actually firing Comey could chill his successor. “Firing Comey would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural and probable effect of interfering with or impeding the investigation.” Firing Comey and Trump’s actions after that “had the potential to affect a successor director’s conduct of the investigation,” even though firing Comey didn’t stop the probe, Mueller reported.

“Substantial evidence” indicates Trump fired Comey because of “Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state the president was not personally under investigation.” Mueller said Trump thought the probe harmed his ability to be president, but “other evidence” indicates Trump “wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign.”

Ordering White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, twice. Once, Trump called McGahn at home with the order, but McGahn, fearing another Watergate-era Saturday Night Massacre – this time in June 2017 – took no action. Then Trump pushed McGahn through former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Lewandowski shunted Trump’s demand off to the side, and McGahn, having had it, resigned – but not before, in another obstruction try, Trump ordered McGahn to lie about Trump’s demand McGahn fire the Special Counsel. McGahn refused that, too.

Firing Mueller “would qualify as an obstructive act” if the firing “would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry,” the Special Counsel’s report said. And by this time, Trump knew Mueller was probing him, not just the campaign and the Russians, and could send the whole mess to a grand jury.

Trump also tried to get Sessions to divert Mueller’s probe into future potential Russian interference in elections.  Sessions refused. Trump constantly trashed Sessions’s decision to stay out of the probe due to his past high Trump campaign posts.

Trump and his lawyers tried to – in layman’s language – shut witnesses up. “The president’s actions toward witnesses” Flynn and former Trump campaign managers Paul Manafort and Roger Stone “would qualify as obstructive if they had the natural tendency to prevent particular witnesses from testifying truthfully, or otherwise would have the probable effect of influencing, delaying, or preventing their testimony to law enforcement.”

Whether the lawyers did so with Trump’s knowledge is inconclusive in Flynn’s case, Mueller reported. But “evidence … indicates the president intended to encourage Manafort not to cooperate with the government,” though “there are alternative explanations for Trump’s comments,” Mueller’s report says.

“Several features of the conduct we investigated distinguish it from typical obstruction-of-justice cases,” Mueller’s report laconically concludes. One is they’re probing the president, “and some of his actions,” including firing Comey “are facially lawful.”

A second is that as president and head of the executive branch, Trump “had unique and powerful means of influencing official proceedings, subordinate officers and potential witnesses – all of which is relevant to a potential obstruction-of-justice analysis.”

Unlike cases where obstruction is used “to cover up a crime, the evidence did not establish the president was involved in an underlying crime relating to” Russia’s election “interference” – Mueller’s word.

“Although obstruction statutes do not require proof of such a crime, absence of that evidence affects the analysis of the president’s intent.”

And, finally, Trump committed many of his acts “in public,” Mueller reported. That’s unusual, but, the Special Counsel adds: “No principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of obstruction laws.”

All this factual information and more and more detail leave it up to Congress to decide what to do next. Calls are increasing for opening an impeachment investigation of Trump, with the latest, and most-prominent, coming from Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said on Sunday morning TV news shows that even the redacted – edited – version of the Mueller report shows “plenty of evidence” for obstruction of justice. Nadler’s committee would handle an impeachment investigation and hearings. He’s already asked Mueller to testify.

“If proven, some of this would be impeachable, yes,” Nadler said on Meet the Press. “Obstruction of justice, if proven, would be impeachable.” Whether Congress would impeach Trump is up to his panel.

The U.S. House’s new Democratic majority met on the afternoon of April 22 to decide what to do, but one thing is certain: Impeachment or not, the investigations of the actions, activities, potential constitutional crimes lies and obstruction of justice by the president of the United States will continue.

And beyond that, there are other investigations underway that deal with serious issues beyond the scope of Mueller was investigating. Those include the president’s propensity for making foreign policy decisions based on the availability of favors and loans that benefited him and his family, money laundering through his Trump Organization, violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution and other matters. Regardless of how the Mueller report is interpreted, it is clear that we have a president who sits on top of a massive criminal enterprise, one he has continued to operate out of the White House. It is clear that his “deals” include waging war overseas resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands (Yemen) and threatens the peace of the world. It is clear from his policy that every single day Trump is intensifying his war against the American people. The sooner he is held accountable and is out of office, the better.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.