By Jules Witcover
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in removing himself from the furor over the possible impeachment of Donald Trump, has invited Congress to act on its constitutional role to do so if further investigation dictates.
In his first public appearance after nearly two years of coloring within the lines of Justice Department policy barring the indictment of a sitting president, Mueller has washed his hands of the matter.
He has confirmed that he did not exonerate the president of allegations of obstruction of justice in his investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election. And he has reiterated that only Congress is now specifically empowered to call Trump to account for any crimes he may have committed.
In his brief and politically antiseptic remarks before television cameras Wednesday, Mueller made no reference whatever to the 10 possible examples pointed out in his report, in what has been called a road map to Trump acts of obstruction.
Yet he has signaled that he understands there are reasonable avenues for further congressional investigation of the president that several committees are already pursing or planning.
Mueller noted in his brief and much-anticipated appearance that he has no desire to appear before the Democratic-controlled committees, including House Judiciary chaired by veteran Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who has issued a subpoena for his testimony.
Mueller has made clear he intends to let his report, now released in redacted form, to speak for him. Nadler and other committee chairmen argue that further interrogation by their members and other supporting documents may well shed more light on impeachable offenses by Trump.
In deferring to Congress’ constitutional power to bring and try charges of obstruction of justice against a president, Mueller continues his career-long adherence to the letter of the law. But his report also has charted the course for the legislative branch to continue the inquiry into Trump’s conduct in office.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike weigh the desirability of the impeachment route as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Many Democrats in Congress see the situation as more of a mandate to press on, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi counsels more fact-finding before taking that step.
While Democratic control of the House suggests a vote there to impeach is quite possible, conviction by a required two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate seems most unlikely right now, and rejection could give comfort to a Trump re-election next year.
But Trump’s own increasingly erratic behavior, particularly his behavior abroad, heightens Democratic demands to get him out of the Oval Office before he does even more damage to America’s reputation to maintain and lead the Western community at a time of surging autocratic populism around the globe.
During last weekend’s visit to Japan, Trump kissed off North Korean missile tests within the range of his host country in the presence of Prime Minister Abe, and then took verbal shots at his own prime 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, from foreign soil.
Trump’s continued demeaning of his office, and his insistence now on commingling foreign policy and domestic politics as he narcissistically globe-trots, raises more questions about the risk this country endures as long as he remains president for another year, or more.
In all, the question of whether to impeach this unprincipled loose cannon hangs heavily over a country in which the defense of its more cherished democratic, moral and ethical standards is now glaringly at stake. Seldom before in the history of this nation, other than in times of involvement in our own Civil war or the two World Wars, has America been shaken to its foundations as it is today under this pathetically unfit and unhinged imitation of a responsible and worthy national leader.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected]