Trump world: Short of a crime, anything goes?

No collusion, maybe obstruction. If there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, why would there be possible obstruction? We waited 22 months for this?

With that verdict rendered by Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSeattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money Trump says he doesn't actually want Whitmer, Biden and Obama to be locked up despite chants Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo MORE — not Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE — we likely still have another month or two until we learn what Mueller learned, and to know how there can be no collusion yet possible obstruction. Until then, we have to put up with hand-wringing, victory laps, cries of cover-up, and threats of defenestration.

Until Mueller’s report emerges, House Democrats would do well to take a page from Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump predicts GOP will win the House Hillicon Valley: Five takeaways on new election interference from Iran, Russia | Schumer says briefing on Iranian election interference didn't convince him effort was meant to hurt Trump | Republicans on Senate panel subpoena Facebook, Twitter CEOs | On The Money: Pelosi cites progress, but says COVID-19 relief deal might be post-election | Eviction crisis sparked by pandemic disproportionately hits minorities | Weekly jobless claims fall to 787K MORE’s playbook and chill out. If impeachment wasn’t on the table before Barr’s letter, it sure isn’t now. Congress will get the report. Their best course of action, from an oversight perspective, is to put their heads down and go about their obligatory work without pounding the table and loudly demanding what they’re going to get anyway.

Congress can get the entire report, grand jury, classified and sensitive material and all. They might even get declination-related information about those not charged with a crime. There may be a skirmish on executive privileged information. But for the most part, Congress will get the full report. 


That full report will not be made public, though. The public will likely get the report minus the grand jury, classified and sensitive material. The public doesn’t need the full report to get the point. As long as Congress gets it, accountability is possible.

What is most critical is the question of the underlying evidence. Congress cannot make credible judgments or get accountability without it. It is the equivalent of an auditor’s working papers that accompany an audit. House chairmen have been calling for access to it, rightfully so. We’ll see how much they get. That’s worth going to war for.

If the Justice Department turns over that evidence, whether by subpoena or not, no problem. However, if the department resists, Congress’ strategy shouldn’t be to demand every piece of paper acquired by Team Mueller. It should take a piecemeal approach. 

After reading the report, committees should prioritize, on a case by case basis, what evidence they want and make a justifiable case for why they need access to it. The House just hired a very capable general counsel, Douglas Letter, with 40 years of experience in the department. I’m sure committee counsels are perfectly able to justify their own cases, but it doesn’t hurt to have the kind of experience and relationships that Letter brings to the table. His office is also armed with myriad precedents of committees receiving such information throughout history.

Having that evidence is what will allow the committees to do their jobs. It will allow us to fill in all the blanks between no collusion and possible obstruction. It should help us know why there were so many in the Trump orbit who lied about Russia if there was no collusion. It will also allow Congress to get accountability where needed. Clearly Barr and Mueller, perhaps others, will be asked to testify. Ideally, Congress would first have a chance to digest the report. That would begin the process of accountability.

As the center of gravity now shifts from criminal investigation to congressional investigation, irrespective of the on-going cases in New York and elsewhere, in many ways Congress’ role is more significant. While finding no acts of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt, there could be a lot of activity just short of a crime. 

I am reminded of my former boss, Department of Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, who sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Deputy Secretary Steven Griles to prison, and investigated rampant ethical lapses among the department’s brass, including Griles before he was jailed. Devaney was called to testify before Congress to explain the cultural rot within Interior. He famously said, “Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”

He was talking about things like ethical lapses, cronyism, favoritism, cover-ups of incompetence, conflict of interest appearances, and other improprieties. These were matters that were neither criminal investigations nor audits, the typical functions of an IG office. But they were just as important. They may not be high Crimes and Misdemeanors, but they happen to be the kinds of things that Congress investigates. 


These forms of wrong-doing were so important to Devaney that he set up an entire unit dedicated to investigating them. He even put a non-criminal investigator in charge. That was because a criminal investigator only looks for crimes, and rarely sees anything else. If the fish isn’t two feet long, throw it back.  

At one point, that unit investigated and found 25 potential ethical breaches against Griles. The department took no action. Three years later, he went to jail. He was a train wreck waiting to happen. That train could have been stopped had action been taken earlier on the ethics front.

That brings us back to the Mueller report. If collusion and obstruction by Team Trump fell short of a crime, that simply means Congress can now review the report to see if there was other wrong-doing that is not criminal but still improper. Chances are, if Mueller did not exonerate the President for obstruction, there could be relevant acts that fall just short of a crime. Congress and the public need to know.

Gloating and end zone dancing aside, and despite all the claims of exoneration or cover-up, it’s astonishing that we would judge the behavior of a president and those around him by whether their acts were criminal or not. 

As for Congress, accountability is now in your hands. Time to put your heads down and fulfill your obligation. See if there’s anything short of a crime that we need to address.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.