After two years of carefully scripted public silence, Robert Mueller spoke on May 30. In eight minutes of words, as carefully scripted as his previous silence, Mueller delivered a message radically different in tone and substance than the Trumpian tweets about a “Russia hoax” and the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion.” Two months after Mueller delivered a 448-page report to Attorney General William Barr, he closed up shop and left his job as Special Counsel. Here is a Q&A based on my interview on China Radio International.
Q: What’s your takeaway from Robert Mueller’s eight-minute statement?
A: Robert Mueller made clear that he believed Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, misstated the findings of the report when Barr claimed that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing. Mueller was precise and diplomatic in his wording. But the words were very damaging to Barr’s credibility among open-minded Americans, although in a deeply divided country, I’m not sure how many people are open to changing their minds about anything relating to Trump. The two points Mueller made abundantly clear: There was, and is, ongoing Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, and he cannot and will not clear Donald Trump of attempting to obstruct justice.
Q: In Mueller’s speech, he detailed 10 instances where Trump had possibly attempted to impede the investigation, but said the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Is he indicating an impeachment process?
A: Not exactly. He said the Justice Department policy is clear and that he abided by that policy. The question of whether a sitting president may be charged criminally during his or her presidency may be decided by a court at some point. Mueller did strongly suggest that it is up to Congress at this present time to formally accuse a sitting president, because the Trump Justice Department will not.
Q: Three more democrats are calling for impeachment, and one Republican has been calling for Trump’s impeachment, do you think the momentum will grow after Mueller’s speech?
A: The momentum is building slowly. The reason is that Republicans remain scared to death of Trump and his supporters. Some are afraid of being defeated in primaries. Some want to use their power in Washington to pursue their policy goals. And other simply agree with Trump’s ends and his tactics. Democratic congressional leaders want to focus the party’s efforts on defeating Trump at the ballot box in 2020 rather than impeaching him, which they could do, but there is no chance of convicting him in a Republican Senate. The same thing happened with Bill Clinton in 1999.
Q: What do you make of the division within the Democratic Party on this issue?
A: The party is divided between pragmatists, who want the House of Representatives to focus on policy issues and want Democrats to focus on electoral success, and idealists and ideologues who believe that Trump is a liar, a crook, a scoundrel, a mad king, a Russian dupe, an unfit charlatan, or some combination of those things.
Q: Mueller said he did “not believe it is appropriate” for him to testify before Congress, as House Democrats have asked. How do you look at this, and how is the Congress going to react to this that he doesn’t want to testify?
A: Mueller is a rare public figure in America who wants his words to speak for him. He wants to investigation and the report to be his legacy. He does not want to get into a personal political war with Donald Trump. Those battles have ended with damaged reputations for anyone who has gotten into a personal conflict with Trump for the past 35 years. Mueller, at his press availability, made it very, very clear that we should focus on the carefully crafted, very strong language in the report. Trump said the report cleared him. It obviously does not. Mueller wants every American to read every word of the report. He doesn’t want them to be forced to choose between political “sound bites.”
Q: Mueller has announced the formal closure of the special counsel office and his resignation from the justice department. If we look back at this investigation that went on for more than two years and costed over 25 million US dollars of tax payer’s money. Do you think it was worth it?
A: Absolutely. It was a fact-finding mission and a criminal investigation. It succeeded on both levels. The people of the world know much more about the Russian government’s aggressive and persistent efforts to elect Donald Trump and sow chaos in the American political system. Dozens of people have been convicted of criminal charges, including some of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. The Mueller investigation has spawned several ongoing criminal probes. But most of all, Mueller wrote a dispassionate, detailed report of the facts as he knew them, despite, as he strongly suggested, an aggressive attempt to obstruct his investigation.
The New York Times calls House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s lopsided primary loss to an underfunded Tea Party challenger “one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history.”
It sounded like hyperbole to me, so I started to think. And think. And think. And I couldn’t think of a comparable repudiation of a House powerhouse by his own party’s voters.
Then I called out the search engines — even the ones blocked here in China — and I soon concluded that Cantor, the first House Majority Leader to be ousted by his own party since the post was created 115 years ago, topped the list.
It’s a short list, because so few primary defeats come out of nowhere. There was a bit of a buzz a couple of weeks ago when Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, a former committee chairman and the oldest man ever to serve in the House, was ousted by a Tea Party insurgent. But few among the Pundit Elite were shocked.
This one was different. I was thinking back and I thought all the way back to the dark days of the Vietnam War, when anti-war insurgent Elizabeth Holtzman stunned longtime House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler in the 1972 New York Democratic primary. Celler was the longest-serving member of the House, a 50-year veteran, and his defeat rocked the House leadership almost as much as George McGovern’s landslide presidential loss did two months later.
General election shockers are nothing new in wave election years or special circumstances. House Speaker Tom Foley was toppled in the 1994 Republican Revolution that ended four decades of Democratic dominance. People were shocked when Dan Rostenkowski, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, lost after getting in trouble with the law over postage stamps and a few other low crimes and misdemeanors. After all, it was Chicago, and what Daley Machine pol loses … to a Republican?
Chicago’s Michael Patrick Flanagan (the Rosty Slayer) isn’t the only challenger to see lightning strike. New York sent Republican Fiorello LaGuardia to Congress in a shocker over Tammany Hall’s own incumbent Democrat, Michael F. Farley, in 1916. LaGuardia went on to become a legendary New York mayor and the subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning musical, “Fiorello!” Farley died in 1921 of exposure to anthrax from his shaving brush.
Rostenkowski’s general election defeat was a final ripple from the the biggest anti-incumbent primary wave in modern history, when 19 lawmakers were purged by constituents angered by the House bank scandal and the lingering aftereffects of recession. The biggest name to fall in a primary that year was Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Commitee, who was beaten by conservative insurgent Peter Hoekstra.
The next biggest wave of incumbent House member defeats in primaries came in 1946, when 18 sitting House members were ousted so that a group of World War Two vets could come to power. None rivaled Cantor in star power.
Among the newcomers: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, neither of whom ousted incumbents in primaries. Nixon shocked five-term California Democrat Jerry Voorhis in the general election, while Kennedy earned his way to DC by dispatching nine Democrats (including two named Joseph Russo — one of them recruited by his dad to split the opposition vote).
Many of the biggest primary surprises have come after reapportionment and redistricting, when party leaders try to eliminate upstarts by “pairing” them against powerful veterans. Sometimes, it backfires, like when anti-machine Philadelphia Democrat Bill Green buried ten-term incumbent (and former funeral director) James A. Byrne in 1972.
Party-switchers also have been prime targets for primary defeats, even with the support of their new party. Such was the fate of Texas Rep. Greg Laughlin, who was toppled in a 1996 GOP primary by a supposedly washed-up former congressman (and Libertarian Party presidential candidate) named Ron Paul, a man who lives to bedevil the Pundit Elite.
Occasionally — very, very occasionally — a grassroots insurgent takes out the Establishment favorite. How many of you remember when a young upstart from Weatherford, Texas, named James Claude Wright Jr. unseated four-term incumbent Wingate Lucas, the favorite of Fort Worth publisher and power broker Amon Carter, in the 1954 Democratic primary? (Former Star-Telegram political reporter and DC veteran Larry Neal does.) Wright went on to become one of the most powerful House members of the second half of the 20th century, serving as House Majority Leader and House Speaker.
Does anybody have any other nominees for biggest primary election surprises? As Ross Perot said famously, “I’m all ears.”
I’ve been reading the invaluable journalism handbook “The Bloomberg Way” as I prepare to start my new life as a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. One of the many must-remember pieces of advice for journalists (whether seasoned or student) is author Matt Winkler’s suggestion to draw up a “top ten” list of influential people on your beat.
In his chapter on preparation, Winkler instructs the reader to get to know those influential figures on her or his beat.
Since I have covered the U.S. Congress for the past 29 years, I have put together my own list of ten most influential members of the U.S. Senate — as an example for my students and as a discussion topic for my friends in Washington:
1. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
The Kentucky senator has proven time after time that a minority senator able to command 41 votes can have more influence over the Senate’s agenda than the leader of its majority.
2. Arizona Sen. John McCain
President Obama’s favorite frenemy in the Senate is a key player in almost all legislation to emerge from the Senate — even if his maverick ways rankle colleagues.
3. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
The feisty Nevada senator controls the Senate’s calendar but not necessarily the outcome.
4. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer
He’s a liberal Democrat able to build partnerships with conservative Republicans. Effective and relentless.
5. Texas Sen. John Cornyn
The second-ranking Senate Republican, an articulate and telegenic lawmaker, is more likely than McConnell to be the public face of the not-so-loyal opposition.
6. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
it’s rare for a freshman senator to be one of the chamber’s most influential, but the first-term firebrand (and potential 2016 presidential candidate) is a key figure in both the Tea Party and Libertarian wings of the Republican Party.
7. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin
Like Cornyn, the number two Senate Democrat is a smoother spokesman for his party than the top guy. He’s also a key player on immigration issues.
8. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker
The former Chattanooga mayor has emerged as a pragmatic conservative and a get-it-done legislator in the mold of legendary Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker.
9. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
He might denounce Barack Obama and meet with the president on different issues on the same day. John McCain’s sidekick is a power in his own right.
10. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
It is exceptionally rare that a first-year senator ranks in the upper echelon in the upper chamber (Hillary Clinton and Phil Gramm are the exceptions that prove the rule). The hard-line Houston conservative has made his mark with an unceasing assault on the Obama administration and a skillful alliance with conservative opinion leaders.