News analysis

Little has changed in US political calculus

Mueller's statement fuels debate on whether to impeach Trump, but opinions still divided

Long-awaited public remarks from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on his probe into Russian interference in America's 2016 elections poured fuel on a debate among Democrats over whether or not to impeach President Donald Trump, but otherwise did little to change the political calculus in Washington.

In the wake of Mr Mueller's nine-minute televised statement on Wednesday, both parties appeared unmoved from their prior convictions - one side seeing Mr Mueller's investigation as one that exonerates the President and the other side saying it all but convicts him, even if impeachment is not on the table yet.

"At some point, the Democrats may decide it is worth the risk (to try and impeach the President) but I don't think they are there yet," Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.

In substance, Mr Mueller's statement stuck close to the points in his 448-page report that had already divided opinion.

On the issue of whether the Trump campaign responded to Russian efforts to influence the elections, Mr Mueller reiterated the finding that "there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy".

And on the question of whether President Trump obstructed the investigation, he explained that his office was bound by existing policy not to charge a sitting president.


SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER

"Under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office," he said. "That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited. The special counsel's office is part of the Department of Justice and by regulation it was bound by that department policy," he said.

NO CONFIDENCE

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.

SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER, in a nine-minute televised statement on Wednesday.

INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE

Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.

MR DONALD TRUMP, in a tweet after Mr Mueller's statement. 

 
 
 

His office thus made no determination on whether Mr Trump committed a crime but he said: "If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that."

To Democrats, this was Mr Mueller putting the onus on Congress. "It falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump," House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler tweeted in response.

That seemed to move the needle a notch closer to impeachment. Democratic senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand this week joined others who have put their hats in the ring for the party's 2020 nomination in calling for an impeachment inquiry to begin.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other veterans remain convinced of the potential for the process to backfire. Many argue that Americans are more interested in fundamental issues like healthcare going into the 2020 campaign, than Russia and Mr Trump. Plus, it is bound to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate, where 20 members of the President's party need to jump ship for him to be impeached.

"Many constituents want to impeach the President, but we want to do what is right, and what gets results," Ms Pelosi told an audience at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco yesterday, after Mr Mueller's statement. "What gets results," she repeated. "The case has to be very compelling to the American people."

Others argue that while the process may stop short of actual impeachment, it has the potential to influence public opinion. But it could equally invite a backlash by further energising Mr Trump's base, and alienating Americans who do not favour the usually long drama of impeachment.

Mr Trump tweeted yesterday morning: "The Greatest Presidential Harassment in history. After spending $40,000,000 over two dark years, with unlimited access, people, resources and cooperation, highly conflicted Robert Mueller would have brought charges, if he had ANYTHING, but there were no charges to bring!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline 'Little has changed in US political calculus'. Print Edition | Subscribe