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

The real relationship between the Donald Trump campaign and the Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTaliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead Russians tune out Vladimir Putin Democrats must engage foreign policy to preserve liberal world order MORE regime in Russia remains murky even after Part I of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal 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 TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat 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 ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE to the president’s close circle of campaign advisers. Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico 2020 is not a family affair, for a change Pompeo jokes about speaking at Trump hotel: 'The guy who owns it' is 'going to be successful' 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 ManafortDemocrats return to a battered Trump Manafort's legal team argues NY prosecution constitutes double jeopardy Clip surfaces of Paul Manafort and wife on Nickelodeon game show MORE and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Democrats set for Lone Star showdown Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan Arrests at southern border drop to 64K in August 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.