WASHINGTON — President Trump and his backers appeared jubilant Monday, as the news set in that after nearly two years of investigations and indictments, special counsel Robert Mueller wouldn’t be accusing Trump of any crimes.
But Congress is concerned about far more than provable criminality, and they won’t be satisfied with the attorney general's four-page summary of Mueller’s findings, according to Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland.
Raskin joins a chorus of powerful Democrats on the House Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight committees, who have called on AG Bill Barr to release the full report on Trump’s ties to Russia and potential obstruction of the Russia investigation.
The crux of their argument: Barr may consider the criminal questions settled, but impeachment is an entirely different matter, and Congress still needs to answer the outstanding questions related to Mueller’s findings about abuse of power and corruption.
Raskin sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which has responsibility for deciding whether to initiate any impeachment proceedings against Trump, and he’s also taught Constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C.
“To me, the memo raises a lot more questions than it answers,” Raskin told VICE News. “And I’m just unwilling to accept this CliffsNotes version of the Mueller report.”
What follows is a conversation with Raskin, conducted Monday morning. It’s been lightly edited for clarity.
What’s your big-picture reaction to Barr’s summary letter?
RASKIN: I have one overwhelming reaction, which is, I want to read the report. I don’t want to read a partisan, CliffsNotes version of "Macbeth." I want to read "Macbeth" itself.
I want to read what Mueller found in terms of the Russian active measures campaign to influence our election.
I want to know what was found in terms of which Trump people were involved, or not involved, in different ways.
I want to read Mueller’s direct statements about what quantum of evidence was found related to those various things.
I want to read what Mueller found in terms of active efforts to obstruct justice by the president and his employees.
And I want to know precisely why Mueller said there was evidence of obstruction but he wanted to leave it to the attorney general to decide. There are lots of different reasons he may have said that. We know that Attorney General Barr has taken a position in a detailed, 19-page memo that the president can essentially never be guilty of obstruction of justice, because of the unitary executive theory of the Constitution.
According to that theory, because the president controls the law enforcement function, he can tell prosecutors and investigators to do whatever he wants them to do, including kill investigations.
We know the president worked hard to kill the investigation into [former National Security Adviser] Michael Flynn, who ended up pleading guilty to various offenses against the United States.
To me, the memo raises a lot more questions than it answers, and I’m just unwilling to accept this CliffsNotes version of the Mueller report.
I’m perfectly willing to believe that there’s not a sufficient quantum of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and particular Russian government agents. I have no problem believing that. That’s a very narrow filing, but a completely plausible one, and one that I would welcome. It would make us feel good. But it doesn’t touch the broader question of abuse of power, and obstruction of justice.
Let’s circle back to that question of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. What is the difference between proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal conspiracy charge, versus the question of how, politically speaking, the president of the United States should conduct himself? And what does this mean for the question of potential impeachment?
Alright, well, there’s a big kettle of fish there.
Prosecutors are searching for a sufficient quantum of evidence that they believe would justify a prosecution where the evidentiary burden is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.
Think about Hillary Clinton and the emails. Prosecutors decided not to engage in any prosecution because they believed that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was either criminal conduct, or criminal intent that could be proven at that level.
That doesn’t obviously acquit Hillary Clinton of carelessness or negligence with respect to her emails, nor does it say that there was no evidence. It just says the prosecutors didn’t think they could sustain that burden of proof.
It seems that in Attorney General Barr’s rendering of it, the whole question is whether there was sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that members of the Trump campaign, or President Trump himself, engaged in a conspiracy with the Russian government to hack into the DNC and get emails and then release them through WikiLeaks.
“Congress of the United States doesn’t engage in criminal prosecution. So we’re much less interested in the narrow question of statutory offenses than we are in the broader question of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and corruption.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is not enough evidence to prove that there was a criminal conspiracy that took place in advance. It seems far more likely that agents of Russian intelligence involved in this scheme planned it on their own, and then simply showed up to tell the Trump campaign that they had different evidence available to them.
I think the interaction with Donald Trump Jr. [who met with a lawyer from Moscow billed as having dirt about Hillary Clinton in the midst of the campaign], or the Trump campaign, was indicative there. They basically said, “We’ve got evidence about Hillary.”
And the response coming from Trump’s son was something like, “Oh, I love it. Let’s meet.” And that was the basis of the meeting.
But that was not enough to articulate a criminal conspiracy. It does show a vast openness on the part of the Trump campaign to receive help from any source available, including people acting on behalf of the Putin government. Right?
Now, that’s not a criminal conspiracy, necessarily. But it’s certainly something that opens the president of the United States up to being in a very compromised posture with respect to Vladimir Putin. That’s why the House Intelligence Committee is extremely interested in that. It also opens the president up to further interactions with other foreign governments. That’s why the Judiciary Committee is extremely interested in the Emoluments Clause [of the Constitution], and the fact that the president has kept businesses open that have been collecting lots of money from foreign princes, kings and governments.
It also establishes a pattern of conduct that makes various federal agencies and departments susceptible to influence-peddling by special interests.
In perhaps a big story of corruption here, the Department of Education has been overrun by the for-profit college industry. And the Department of Interior has been taken over by the mining and timber and fracking and oil and gas industries, and so on.
That’s what the congressional interest is.
Congress of the United States doesn’t engage in criminal prosecution. So we’re much less interested in the narrow question of statutory offenses than we are in the broader question of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and corruption.
So that brings me to the next question, which is the obstruction of justice question. Is it up to the attorney general to decide whether the president has obstructed justice? Or is it up to Congress?
Well, ultimately, the Constitutional question of obstruction of justice is one that is reposed in Congress.
The question of statutory offenses is one that belongs in the Department of Justice.
Explain that. What’s the difference?
OK, well, let’s see: Obstruction of justice is a federal crime. You can’t interfere with a criminal prosecution or investigation with a corrupt intent. That is a crime, and people go to jail for that.
But obstruction of justice also has a Constitutional or political meaning, and it has been alleged in all of the major impeachment investigations that you remember.
It was part of the Nixon impeachment. It was part of the charges brought against Bill Clinton.
Essentially, obstruction of justice in the Constitutional vernacular means trying to interfere with the pursuit of the truth, and a just outcome, in a legal or public policy context.
And I think obstruction of justice was the lead article of impeachment against Bill Clinton because the Republicans driving it thought he was trying to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Where does that leave us now with this question of impeachment? In the wake of Barr’s letter, where do we stand? How has that changed the question?
Well, if all America ever knows about what Mueller found is contained in Barr’s four-page letter, then the country is going to remain divided among partisan lines.
We had an overwhelming bipartisan statement on March 14 that we wanted to read the Mueller report in its entirety. That was a vote of 420 to zero. The House of Representatives was unanimous that the entire report be turned over, precisely so we would not have a situation where the attorney general cherry-picked different phrases or findings or conclusions in order to construct a narrative suitable to his liking.
We do not want the CliffsNotes version of "Macbeth." We want to be able to read "MacBeth" in its entirety. We are perfectly capable of reading it and understanding it, and we want the evidence that the report is based on.
Cover: Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., conduct a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled "Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice," where acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker was questioned about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation on Friday, February 8, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)