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Mueller report: congressional Trump investigations needed

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Long before it would have occurred to anyone to posit an elaborate conspiracy involving the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the question of what Donald Trump was hiding on his tax returns seemed to be crucial and important to assessing his fitness for the presidency. But that question, like so many others, wound up subsumed by Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation.

With the Mueller inquiry now seemingly at an end, the time is right to refocus on the key questions about Trump — questions that are not limited to Russia in scope and that are mostly political rather than prosecutorial in nature.

It’s worth remembering how Mueller’s investigation came into existence. Back in 2017, Trump’s relationship with Russia was the only question that Republicans, who controlled Congress, wanted to investigate.

Even on Inauguration Day, there were plenty of obvious lines of inquiry into Trump to pursue. There were the credible allegations of sexual assault (allegations that have only multiplied since then), the campaign contributions that helped Trump University investigations go away, the fake charity Trump ran for years, the dubious financing of his real estate ventures, and, of course, the mystery of his tax returns.

Since he’s taken office, the list of questions worthy of investigation has only grown. There’s his family members’ weird security clearances, reporting that a group of Mar-a-Lago club members appear to be running the Veterans Administration, and the prosecution of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, which seems to have implicated Trump personally in a crime.

The problem with all of this has been that Republicans didn’t and don’t care. It was not until Nancy Pelosi took over as speaker of the House this January that there was anything Democrats could do to take on these questions without Republican help.

Democrats got behind Mueller’s investigation because it was the only game in town, not because it seemed incredibly promising. It was Trump’s abrupt decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, followed by months of incredibly guilty-sounding tweets and other statements from the White House, that led many of us to believe Mueller was likely to uncover something big.

Over time, the legend of the Mueller investigation grew to the point where many Trump haters began to put more hopes on the special counsel and his team than their mandate actually supported. To “bring down Trump” is fundamentally the task of opposition politics, and all indications are that this never became the kind of meandering investigation (was there Iranian money laundering behind Trump Tower Baku?) that could have painted a broad negative portrait of Trump and his operation.

Democrats took control of the House in January 2019 and could have begun to conduct appropriate investigations of a president in congressional committees and centered on the critical political question of Trump’s fitness for office. But by then, Mueller had become too big. He dominated the headlines and served as an excuse for Democrats to stand down on holding Trump accountable.

Now that Mueller’s done, there are no more excuses. It’s time to make investigating the president great again, and getting to the bottom of the tax return mystery is an ideal place to start.

The origins of the Russia probe

After Trump unexpectedly won the election, congressional Republicans, particularly those who refused to endorse Trump during the campaign and several of whom proclaimed him unfit for office, could and should have joined Democrats in insisting that he set up his financial affairs in some kind of remotely acceptable way.

But they chose not to. They made no demands of Trump, and then they made no effort to force transparency onto any of it. From the campaign through the transition until today, corporations, wealthy individuals, and foreign governments have had multiple channels by which they can secretly funnel cash to the president and his family, and congressional Republicans have said nothing and done nothing about it.

What they did have a problem with is the Russia policy Trump outlined during the campaign. And because of that policy dispute, congressional Republicans were willing to support an investigation into the Russia matter — in the form of a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report and then later in an FBI probe that became a special counsel inquiry. This was in part to create leverage to try to force Trump into hewing to a more orthodox policy course. Republican Russia hawks have not been 100 percent successful in this regard, but the United States did not pull out of NATO, recognize Russian annexation of Crimea, cut off aid to Ukraine, greenlight an invasion of Estonia, or any of a dozen other things Trump has hinted from time to time that he favors.

Other avenues of investigation into allegations that Trump is a sexual predator or a fraud or a tax cheat or an all-around crook were of less interest to Republicans, so they were not pursued.

Trump opponents would convince themselves from time to time that Mueller was pursuing them, but as best we can tell, that’s not the case.

Mueller really is a straight-shooting lifelong Republican

The sheer ferocity of Trump’s generally nonsensical attacks on Mueller — a lifelong Republican and veteran law enforcement professional — tended to lend credence to the notion that either he was guilty of something incredibly damning related to Russia or Mueller was leading a wide-ranging effort to bring Trump down.

There was, of course, ample precedent for this in the form of Ken Starr’s wildly unethical investigation during the Bill Clinton years that was originally supposed to be about the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas. Starr never came close to showing that Clinton did anything wrong related to that deal. But his office — staffed with partisan Republican hotshots like Brett Kavanaugh — became an all-purpose clearinghouse for Clinton investigations. They looked into everything under the sun. They leaked information, selectively, to the press and to Congress. Their aim was to bring down Clinton by any means within the law, not to produce a thorough report about a land deal.

In theory, the Russia investigation could have been pursued this way. And, in fact, an inquiry of this sort would have made a lot more sense than Starr leaping from a land deal to a sexual harassment case to an exploitative affair with an intern. To really understand Trump’s “links” to Russia, you need to understand his finances. To get a full picture of his finances, you need to take a thorough look at every shady deal he’s involved with. And once you’re doing that, you might uncover Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, money laundering violations, tax violations, and who knows what else. Trump has never been a particularly scrupulous businessman. A wide-ranging investigation could reveal any number of bad acts.

As the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson wrote when Michael Cohen’s office was raided and he thought such a wide-ranging investigation was underway:

However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality. In Azerbaijan, he did business with a likely money launderer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group that was being investigated for a possible role in the largest known bank-fraud and money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is “knee-deep in dirty politics”; there are criminal investigations of his deals in Brazil; the F.B.I. is reportedly looking into his daughter Ivanka’s role in the Trump hotel in Vancouver, for which she worked with a Malaysian family that has admitted to financial fraud. Back home, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka were investigated for financial crimes associated with the Trump hotel in SoHo—an investigation that was halted suspiciously. His Taj Mahal casino received what was then the largest fine in history for money-laundering violations.

The problem for Democrats in this regard turns out to be that their defenses of Mueller were more accurate than Trump’s demanding rants about “12 Angry Democrats.”

Mueller wasn’t just rummaging through Trump’s finances to try to dig up dirt, bring Trump down, avenge his friend James Comey, and demonstrate that you don’t mess with the FBI. Instead, he seems to have looked pretty narrowly at whether Trump’s campaign was involved in some kind of criminal conspiracy with Russian military intelligence. And, according to Attorney General William Barr at least, he’s concluded that they didn’t.

It’s probably good that Mueller, unlike Starr, did his job in an ethical manner. But at the end of the day, there was never any way to bring Trump down with an investigation of this sort. Democrats are lucky to have it behind them. They are better off controlling their own destiny in the political arena.

Now Democrats can investigate things that matter

As this particular moment recedes in time, the significance of the legal conspiracy question surrounding Trump and Russia is bound to fade.

Looking back broadly, there is no question that Trump behaved inappropriately with regard to Russian hacking. He welcomed it at the time, publicly. And then he tried, again publicly, multiple times to cover or apologize for it after the fact. He also, despite the best efforts of most of his administration, seems to keep hinting around that he wants to throw NATO in the trash can and hand Russia a massive diplomatic victory for no reason. For this to come in the context of members of his campaign conspiring in a legally actionable way with the hackers would have been egregious, but even without lawbreaking, none of it speaks well of Trump.

The problem, as CNN polling guru Harry Enten points out, is that for all the airtime the Russia story has occupied, all the evidence suggests “it doesn’t matter to voters.” It’s a story that a certain swath of the Trump-hating population is really into, but it doesn’t move the needle with people who feel they have some reason to like Trump.

And if you step back and think about it, that’s not too surprising. Russia policy, the fate of Crimea, and the US security commitment to the Baltic states doesn’t sound like the kind of stuff swing voters would be interested in.

It’s easy to imagine evidence that Trump is a fraud who exploits working people, a tax cheat, or on the take from the Saudi government doing more to swing voters. Interestingly, experimental evidence suggests that something as simple as pointing out that Trump inherited his wealth rather than being a self-made man alters voters’ perceptions of him a great deal. It’s obviously not a crime to have inherited money from your dad (though a New York Times investigation suggests that Fred Trump did break the law to help Donald dodge taxes), but the circumstances under which Trump came to be so rich is evidently something that matters to people. In particular, it’s an area in which you can imagine changing a Trump fan’s mind on the specific issue might change his mind about Trump.

This kind of thing — attempting to bring to light true information that reflects poorly on the incumbent president — is a job for Congress, not federal prosecutors. The hope that Mueller would do it anyway wasn’t entirely outlandish, but it apparently didn’t happen, and that’s likely for the best. But for political purposes, the crucial thing continues to be getting a full portrait of Trump’s finances. Perhaps because there’s something illegal in there, but more likely and more importantly because understanding who is paying Trump and why is important to understanding his actual policymaking around issues that matter.

Now the baton passes to the appropriate people, and it’s time for them to run the race.

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