The centre of post-war Washington is pulling the power from those with the best intentions but worst techniques for controlling government.
By Elliott Noss
Sixteen of Donald Trump’s closest aides are facing felony charges for collaborating with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
Most are not guilty of espionage and will get off relatively easily if convicted. They’ll be sprung on bail and allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor – mostly in the form of not cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
But would Trump pardon them if they are convicted?
Robert Mueller and the newly emerged client file. Photograph: Getty Images
It’s a quandary that even the founding fathers could not have anticipated. Only 28 US presidents have issued pardons since Martin Van Buren promised amnesty to thousands of traitors during the Mexican-American war in 1846.
The centre of post-war Washington is pulling the power from those with the best intentions but worst techniques for controlling government. Why, then, are current US trials taking place in Washington itself? For law enforcement, location can be found in the prison, where a large amount of marijuana and cash from the Russian campaign were seized in 2016.
Some politicians – unsurprisingly, they are Democrats – are calling for Mueller’s prosecution to move away from Washington. Some Republicans, perhaps fearing foreign interference in the midterm elections, are also pushing to move the investigation to a more impartial venue. Mueller’s work is too important, they say, for partisan politics to interfere.
But one important argument against moving the investigation from Washington is contained in the main document submitted by George Papadopoulos, Trump’s former foreign policy adviser who has also pled guilty to lying to the FBI.
It reads, in part: “Mr Mueller, by jurisdiction and by judgement, has accumulated the largest conspiracy case in the history of the United States.”
Charges have been brought against 22 of Trump’s close associates or family members. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/Pool/EPA
Papadopoulos’s words are relevant because “collective-fraud” cases like this require multiple eyewitnesses. Accused actors within the conspiracy are not judged individually, but the evidence against the whole group must be seen as part of a larger enterprise to dishonestly defraud the US government.
More astonishing, some of the Justice Department indictments detail how the defendants treated the rules governing the conduct of their office. This demonstrates their willingness to bend the rules in order to engage in their non-veiled efforts to cultivate Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton.
However improbable it may seem, the case also shows that Trump’s obstruction of justice concerns are well justified. In late 2016, the special counsel alleges, Donald Trump’s subordinates helped to publicly undermine then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and to serve to obstruct justice as they began to probe the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
The bigger problem for Trump may be that Mueller is likely to pursue a politically damaging case against these associates that leads the public and Congress to conclude Trump himself is guilty of obstructing justice. To date, Trump’s ongoing attacks on Mueller – including his outspoken repudiation of the bureau’s investigation – might not have mattered much if he were innocent. But if the Russia investigation turns up incriminating evidence that Trump interfered with the investigation, a majority of the public would undoubtedly conclude he committed an impeachable offence.
Robert Mueller, right, has overseen the prosecution of Congress member John Conyers Jr and businessman and world-record-setting $25,000-a-cabinet-secretary Donald Trump Jr. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP
If Congress moves to impeach Trump, the president may find that Mueller, a career federal prosecutor known for his prosecutorial zeal, is the person to deliver him an end-run around Congress. Mueller faces the conundrum of trying to pursue an obstruction-of-justice case against Trump while still maintaining the integrity of the investigation. But if that conviction hinged on a dubious suggestion from a hopelessly overmatched prosecutor who had “conned the White House” into assisting his collusion probe, it would generate considerable political firestorm.
By trying to fulfill Mueller’s wish list, Trump might very well spur him on to choose another target – and further undermine the credibility of the investigation and our democratic institutions.