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Did the president obstruct the investigation into Russian interference in 2016? We should seek the truth [opinion]

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On April 18, U.S. Attorney General William Barr released the redacted 448-page “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election,” by special counsel Robert Mueller. The report details the extensive efforts of the Russian government and entities, including the Internet Research Agency — a troll farm funded by an oligarch with reported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin —  to “undermine the U.S. electoral system.” The “Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the special counsel found.

These are the values we believe Lancaster County residents embody and hold dear: honesty, integrity, patriotism, adherence to the rule of law.

There are others, of course: faith and family chief among them.

But it was those first four that came to mind as we read the Mueller report and considered how Lancaster County residents might expect their elected representatives in Congress to react to it.

The Mueller report is a thorough and clinical analysis of a foreign government’s attack on the United States. Its contents and conclusions, even in redacted form, should concern every one of us, no matter our political views or affiliation.

Please read the Mueller report.

It makes plain that Russia ruthlessly and relentlessly attacked our electoral system — the beating heart of our democracy, which sets the course of our republic. And likely will do so again.

That isn’t the conclusion of “angry Democrats,” as President Donald Trump would have us believe. That is the conclusion of a skilled team of federal investigators led by Mueller, a former FBI director who served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine Corps platoon commander and was awarded medals for valor in combat. Mueller, reportedly a lifelong Republican, has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The special counsel’s investigation was essential in ensuring the integrity of our elections moving forward.

So why did Lancaster County Congressman Lloyd Smucker react as he did to the report’s release?

This was Smucker’s April 18 statement in its entirety: “Despite 2800 subpoenas, 500 witnesses, an unlimited budget, and now more than 400 pages of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, nothing has changed. There was no collusion and Mueller concluded there is insufficient evidence for obstruction of justice. Yet the investigations continue because liberal Democrats have sacrificed the principle of presumption of innocence on the altar of political profits. This is the politics of personal destruction. It is past time for Congress to move on with the business of the American people.”

Talk about missing the point. And getting it terribly wrong in the process.

‘Uncover everything’

Just months after Smucker settled into his new digs on Capitol Hill, he responded to the May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey in what we thought was a sensible and appropriate way.

He told 150 people at a Rotary Club gathering in Lancaster that it was “certainly incumbent on Congress to be sure that the American public know what is happening in instances like this and that we uncover everything that can be uncovered.”

The then-freshman congressman described letters released by the Trump administration relating to the firing as “inadequate.” And he issued a strong statement in response to Trump’s abrupt dismissal of the FBI director: “The decision to dismiss Director Comey raises serious and legitimate questions about timing, intent, and the integrity of ongoing investigations. My constituents deserve answers and I hope to see a full explanation soon.”

Smucker continued: “Additionally, while I support current congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, I believe we need a fresh start. It’s time for Congress to fully examine all circumstances surrounding Russia’s involvement, and to look at ways to ensure a fair and straightforward investigation.”

That’s just what the nearly two-year special counsel investigation was: fair and straightforward. And it uncovered everything that could “be uncovered” — as Smucker put it in 2017 — about the circumstances of Comey’s firing. And what it found was disturbing.

Based on interviews with those who took part in the discussions about Comey’s firing — including former White House Counsel Don McGahn — the special counsel concluded that Trump and his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had lied about the reasons Comey was fired and about the support they had within the FBI for the director’s termination.

States the Mueller report, “Substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the President’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation, despite the President’s repeated requests that Comey make such an announcement. ... The President’s other stated rationales for why he fired Comey are not similarly supported by the evidence.”

According to the Mueller report, the evidence indicates this: “the President wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign.”

So Smucker finally got his answers about the Comey firing in the Mueller report. And how did he respond?

With a statement full of partisan nonsense about “liberal Democrats” sacrificing “the principle of presumption of innocence on the altar of political profits.”

“This,” Smucker declared, “is the politics of personal destruction.”

It’s not. It’s not at all.

Those sounding the alarm over the findings of the Mueller report — Republicans as well as Democrats — are attempting to protect our republic from enemies intent on weakening it.

Toomey’s response

Contrast Smucker’s April 18 statement with that of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania:

“While I have not had the opportunity to review the just-released 448 page report, all Americans should be pleased that the Special Counsel concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I am pleased that the report does not have any redactions based on executive privilege and that a version of the report with all redactions removed, except those relating to grand jury information, will be made available to a bipartisan group of lawmakers. ...

“The Special Counsel’s findings are a stark reminder that Russia’s goal is to undermine the trust the American people have in our democratic process and government.”

Yes, indeed they are.

Toomey wisely focused on the import of the Mueller report, and what it signifies for our nation.

Election security

We’ve become inured to President Trump’s incessant focus on himself. He fired Comey because the FBI director was loyal to the law, not to him; he booted former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the same reason. He said Wednesday he would turn to the U.S. Supreme Court if Democrats tried to impeach him — reflecting his lack of understanding of how our government was set up to work by the Founding Fathers.

And, as The New York Times reported Wednesday, ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to get the Trump administration to develop strategies to prevent Russian interference in the 2020 election. But she was told by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney not to raise the subject in front of the president for fear Trump would see it as a diminishment of his 2016 victory.

As staunch believers in American democracy, we find this completely disquieting.

We’d hope that Smucker would, too.

In July 2018, at a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, President Trump shockingly seemed to accept Vladimir Putin’s denial of responsibility for the 2016 election attacks over the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Smucker responded then with this statement: “Safe, secure, and sound elections are critical to our democracy. Our intelligence community is filled with men and women determined to protect the United States from both foreign and domestic threats. Because of their hard work, we know that Russia interfered in our 2016 election in an attempt to dismantle the integrity of our democratic system and sow divisions throughout our country. President Trump must acknowledge this fact, stand up to President Putin, and act. Failing to do so will only encourage further attempts to infiltrate our elections.”

We couldn’t have stated it better ourselves.

Case not closed

In an op-ed published April 3 in LNP, Smucker asserted: “Many Democrats and this paper parrot the line that the Mueller report ‘doesn’t exonerate’ the president. The reason for that is simple: Prosecutors don’t exonerate people — they search for evidence and determine whether it’s significant enough to press charges. They either find that evidence or they don’t.

“Mueller looked for 22 months and found none. It isn’t there. No collusion. No obstruction. Again, case closed.”

This — from the Mueller report, not Barr’s four-page summary of it — is what the special counsel actually concluded regarding Trump’s possible obstruction of justice:

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

So, case not closed after all.

As citizens, we should expect Congress — a co-equal branch of the government — to carry out its constitutional oversight responsibilities, and to investigate whether the president obstructed justice.

We should expect members of Congress to embrace that duty. We should demand that they do.

Especially as the Mueller report pointedly states this: “The conclusion that Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

Smucker, of course, isn’t alone in seeing the post-Mueller landscape through a political lens. Congressional Democrats are dithering about what hearings on the obstruction of justice question might mean for their 2020 electoral chances.

But this is a time for selfless patriotism, not self-interested partisanship. The big question facing us now is not whether Trump or his campaign conspired with the Russians to sway our presidential election — Mueller concluded they didn’t. As legal experts have pointed out, the big question is whether Trump impeded the investigation into Russian interference.

Here in Lancaster County, we value truth. We shouldn’t fear it. We should demand it.

Truth about Russia

As the special counsel investigation found, what began as a generalized effort by Russia to undermine the U.S. electoral system and sow discord in the United States in 2014 and 2015 became, by early 2016, a targeted focus on supporting candidate Trump and disparaging Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The Internet Research Agency’s campaign of “information warfare” included the use of fake social media accounts, political advertising and the staging of political rallies in the United States.

In early 2016, the Mueller report states, “the Russian government employed a second form of interference: cyber intrusions (hacking) and releases of hacked materials damaging to the Clinton Campaign.”

Last week, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner minimized Russia’s efforts in 2016 as a “couple (of) Facebook ads.”

That’s not just false but deeply worrying, as it suggests the Trump administration either doesn’t grasp or still doesn’t want to accept the seriousness of the dangers before us.

In his April 18 statement, Smucker was right about one thing at least when he wrote that, after the conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation, “nothing has changed.”

Nothing has changed.

Even after the worst-ever attack on our electoral system, our elections remain frighteningly vulnerable to foreign interference.

We, the people, remain vulnerable to foreign influence, too.

And those we elected to lead us are so gripped by their desire to be re-elected that they are neglecting their sworn duty to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

There needs to be a rigorous assessment of our defenses — or lack thereof — against attacks like those Russia waged against our democracy in 2016. An intensive effort to correct vulnerabilities. And a congressional investigation, however painful, into whether the president obstructed justice.

This moment demands men and women who believe, to their core, that American democracy must be defended. Who put country before party.