Not criminal, but not ethical either: Mueller reignites a political debate

Why We Wrote This

President Trump’s actions didn’t meet the special counsel’s standard for criminal charges. That’s left Democrats wrestling with whether to pursue the unethical behavior in the report or let voters decide.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he and first lady Melania Trump depart the White House in Washington April 24. Democrats are wrestling with whether to pursue unethical behavior surfaced by the Mueller report, possibly through impeachment or censure.

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American history is replete with examples of leaders who violated commonly accepted morals. Some found a public willing to move on; some did not.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report lays bare copious contacts between Russians and Trump campaign associates but finds no criminal conspiracy. It also chronicles 10 episodes that Mr. Mueller investigated for potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, leaving a final verdict to Congress.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani inadvertently brought the question of moral versus criminal standards to the fore over the weekend on CNN, saying “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” Mr. Giuliani was referring to the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between senior Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. When the ethics of taking information from a foreign source was raised, Mr. Giuliani pushed back. “We’re going to get into morality?” he asked. “That isn’t what prosecutors look at – morality.”

“Robert Mueller uncovered a lot of smelly, uncomfortable stuff,” says Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University in Montreal. “Too many of our leaders think that not being indictable is the moral standard for leadership. That’s not my standard.”

The Mueller report is bringing questions of ethics and morality in government once again to the forefront of a vigorous public debate.

Jammed with primary sources, special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page journey into the inner workings of the Trump campaign and early presidency pops with detail: It is a tale of palace intrigue, deceit, and attempts to collaborate with a foreign power and hinder a federal investigation.

The report lays bare copious contacts between Russians and Trump associates during the campaign, though it finds no criminal conspiracy. It also chronicles 10 episodes that Mr. Mueller investigated for potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, leaving a final verdict to Congress.

“Robert Mueller uncovered a lot of smelly, uncomfortable stuff,” says Gil Troy, an expert on the U.S. presidency at McGill University in Montreal. “As an American citizen, I get encouragement that our law enforcement officials in very high-profile cases are careful not to throw people into the courts, let alone jail, without a very high standard of proof. That’s my happy takeaway.”

Professor Troy’s “unhappy takeaway” comes when he looks more broadly at the behavior of President Trump and some of those around him as well as the scandals that embroiled both President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee.

“I find that too many of our leaders think that not being indictable is the moral standard for leadership,” Mr. Troy says. “That’s not my standard.”

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani inadvertently brought the question of moral versus criminal standards to the fore over the weekend on CNN, saying “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” Mr. Giuliani was referring to the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between senior Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton.

Such a contribution from a foreign national might have violated federal election law, though at the meeting no information about Mrs. Clinton was produced. Still, many observers commented that the offer of help from a hostile foreign power should have led the president’s son to contact the FBI. Instead, the junior Mr. Trump’s emailed reaction was “I love it.”

But when the ethics of a campaign taking information from a foreign source was raised, Mr. Giuliani pushed back. “We’re going to get into morality?” he asked. “That isn’t what prosecutors look at – morality.” 

Politics or principle? 

American history is replete with examples of leaders who violated commonly accepted morals. Some were protected from scrutiny at the time, including by the press. Those who were exposed sometimes found a public willing to move on, sometimes not.

Almost always, elections are the preferred reset button.

Public versus private morality remains an important if occasionally murky distinction. Adultery, for example, remains unacceptable to many Americans but isn’t an impeachable offense. It was lying under oath and obstructing justice that formed the basis of President Clinton’s impeachment.

President Richard Nixon, mired in the Watergate scandal, resigned when faced with certain impeachment and expulsion. But no other president has been forced from office early. Short of impeachment, a step twice taken by the House, there’s also the option of a censure in cases of ethical violations. The Senate has adopted such a resolution against a president only once: against Andrew Jackson in 1834.

Some Trump critics, concerned by the political risks and impact on the country of impeachment, have proposed that Congress censure Mr. Trump. To others, censure is not enough.

“This is not about politics; this is about principle,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate for president, in a CNN town hall on Monday. She supports impeaching Mr. Trump.

“To ignore a president’s repeated efforts to obstruct an investigation into his own disloyal behavior would inflict great and lasting damage on this country,” Senator Warren tweeted last Friday.

Among congressional Republicans, the near-silence following the Mueller report has been deafening.

In the Senate’s Republican caucus, Mitt Romney of Utah has been alone in speaking out forcefully. In a statement issued last Friday, the freshman senator said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the president.”

Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives for a Senate policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington March 12. Mr. Romney was the only Republican senator to forcefully condemn President Donald Trump's behavior as outlined in the Mueller report.

Some of the Trump loyalists of today, who gloss over the wrongdoing laid out in the Mueller report, went hard after Mr. Clinton during his impeachment in 1999.

“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if [the Senate] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” said then-Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at the time. “Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

This week, now-Senator Graham tweeted that “using the Mueller report as a basis for impeachment would be an unhinged act of political retribution.”

Guardrails gone

In the first two years of the Trump presidency, a number of key aides served as ethical guardrails, preventing the president from acting on his own worst instincts. According to the Mueller report, many either ignored or slow-walked orders they feared would land the president in trouble.

“The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report wryly states.

Mr. Trump now has a team that better fits his style, including an attorney general, William Barr, who shaped the Trump spin around the Mueller report (“No collusion, no obstruction”) weeks before it was released to the public.

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is seen more as a cheerleader for Mr. Trump’s instincts than a check on them. He encouraged, for example, the president’s recent push in court to overturn the Affordable Care Act despite the lack of a GOP replacement plan.

“They’ve got an acting chief of staff who seems to be reinforcing all of Trump’s worst political instincts,” says Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff.

The most effective chiefs of staff, Mr. Whipple says, are those willing to give the president bad news. But that takes having a president willing to receive it, and with Mr. Trump that’s not always the case. Before resigning, former Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen was told not to discuss Russian interference in the 2020 election with Mr. Trump, according to The New York Times. Such talk raised questions about the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Mulvaney reportedly implied.

At least one Republican observing from the sidelines sees the Mueller report as a cautionary tale for the president and his team going forward.

“I hope POTUS, his family and staff realize how close POTUS came to an obstruction charge,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, using the acronym for president of the United States.

“Laws are made to restrain presidents, even genuinely frustrated presidents who are accused of things they didn’t do,” Mr. Fleischer continued. “Presidents can’t instruct their staffs to lie. Ethics matter.”

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