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Trump, Mueller, the issue of 'guilt' and a do-nothing Congress

The real relationship between the Donald Trump campaign and the Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSafeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt DOJ: Russian hackers targeted 2018 Olympics, French elections Putin stands with Belarus's dictator — we should stand by its people MORE regime in Russia remains murky even after Part I of former 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’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. One thing is certain: The relationship was much more complicated than President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE admits in his relentless public assertion that the investigation into the Russian attack on U.S. democracy in 2016 was a “witch hunt” and that Mueller found “no collusion” with Russia during the campaign.

The president obviously believes that if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it.

To be honest with the American people, Trump should say what Mueller makes clear in the report — that the investigation did not pass judgment on the president’s guilt or innocence one way or the other.

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Mueller did not exonerate Trump. The special counsel took no position on the president’s personal guilt or innocence in Russian interference in 2016. In his report, Mueller dodges Trump’s potential violation of U.S. law — not because Trump was necessarily innocent but because Justice Department policy states that a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while in office. Separately, Mueller stated publicly that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Mueller’s report also makes no judgement about Trump and his campaign on the question of “collusion.” The report states that collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in U.S. law, nor is it a term of art in federal law.

Part I of the special counsel report does raise a very serious legal question on whether Trump violated existing U.S. law prohibiting foreign involvement in American elections.

U.S. law forbids foreign nationals from contributing anything of value in U.S. elections. It is also illegal for U.S. citizens to solicit or accept foreign contributions related to U.S. elections.

Part I of the report offers plenty of questions about the president’s possible violation of the provision of the law on foreign involvement in American elections.

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In public comments on July 27, 2016, Trump pleaded with Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and to release them. Hours later, Russian hackers, ultimately indicted by Mueller, made the first effort to break into the Clinton campaign servers. Many of the stolen Clinton emails were ultimately released to the public.

To further solidify his political appetite for foreign campaign help, Trump recently admitted that he would again accept negative foreign research on his opponents in future elections.

The Russians also offered dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLate night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 10 steps toward better presidential debating Continuity is (mostly) on the menu for government contracting in the next administration MORE to the president’s close circle of campaign advisers. Donald Trump Jr.Don John TrumpTrump Jr. returning to campaign trail after quarantining Trump Jr., UFC star launch anti-socialism bus tour through South Florida Donald Trump Jr. urges hunters to vote for his father MORE apparently welcomed that information for the purpose of a campaign advantage for the Trump tower meeting on June 9, 2016. Trump campaign manager Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDOJ veteran says he's quitting over Barr's 'slavish obedience' to Trump Bruce Ohr retires from DOJ Don't forget: The Trump campaign gave its most sensitive data to a Russian spy MORE and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump creates federal council on global tree planting initiative | Green group pushes for answers on delayed climate report | Carbon dioxide emissions may not surpass 2019 levels until 2027: analysis Trump creates federal government council on global tree planting initiative Kardashian West uses star power to pressure US on Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict MORE also attended the meeting.

Throughout the campaign, the number of contacts between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Russian officials and persons representing Russian interests during a U.S. national election was unprecedented.

Trump campaign officials consistently lied in public and to investigators about their contacts with Russians. Why did so many of them lie about their Russian contacts if these contacts did not contain solicitation and offers of Russian campaign or otherwise involve illegal campaign activity with a foreign power? 

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A legal judgment on Trump’s guilt or innocence by Mueller on this aspect of U.S. law also falls within the Justice Department policy on presidential indictments. But for this layman, Trump’s actions look like solicitation of a potentially helpful contribution —something of value in a U.S. election — from a foreign power in violation of U.S. law. 

The Mueller report failed to investigate the question of Trump’s financial relationship with Russia. The president made financial investigations a red line for any inquiry, and Mueller avoided wading into the shadowy questions of Trump’s finances. But no investigation into the relationship between Trump and Russia is complete without a full review of that financial relationship.

Given Justice Department policy, Trump’s possible violations of U.S. election law and obstruction of justice are open legal questions that can now only be resolved in an impeachment investigation. 

The president and his Republican supporters will continue to bully, howl in outrage and use every legal trick to prevent a thorough investigation into the president’s relationship with Russia, a hostile foreign power which attacked American democracy. Right now, Trump is winning, as Congress looks timid, uncertain and weak in the face of the president’s aggressive opposition. 

The clock is running out on any realistic chance to lay out the facts of Trump’s involvement in the Russian attack on American democracy to the voters. The Mueller report is 400 pages of legal description without judgments on presidential actions, yet potential impeachable offenses are everywhere in the report.

At some point very soon, impeachment must begin. This is no time for indecision weakness, or paralysis caused by overthought political calculations. Let the American people decide after hearing the public testimony of those involved. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of American democracy and our influence in the world are at stake in coming months.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.