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Behind the straight shooting, ramrod demeanor always mentioned by his friends, Robert Mueller possesses a shrewd intelligence. He demonstrated that strategic acuity on Wednesday morning when, with a few carefully selected sentences, he wielded his own reticence to deliver a crushing blow to Donald Trump (and a hard shot to Attorney General William Barr, the White House henchman).

The more diffidence Mueller displayed in speaking publicly — after two years of principled silence as special counsel — the more powerful were the words he chose to utter. Standing before the seal of the Justice Department, he told us it is important that his 448-page report “speak for itself.” Yet with the nation listening, he briskly underlined the most salient aspects of the report, which the great majority of his fellow Americans will never read.

Mueller wants us to understand — contrary to whatever Trump, Jared Kushner, or assorted Republican patsies might claim — that the Russian plot to sway the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton was a historic assault on our democracy. This act by a hostile foreign power was a matter “of paramount importance” that “deserves the attention of every American.”

Rather than clear Trump and his associates of conspiring with the Russians, Mueller pointed not only to the “numerous efforts emanating from Russia to influence the election” but also his report’s “discussion of the Trump campaign’s response to this activity,” which was enthusiastic if not provably criminal — despite his ultimate finding that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.”

The former FBI director also hopes we will grasp the gravity of charges that Trump obstructed justice, and realize why he spent so much time and effort investigating those accusations. “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators,” he intoned, “it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” In other words, the cover-up is as despicable as the crime.

Then he delivered the harshest judgment. It wasn’t surprising to anyone who has read the report or the media coverage, but it was still news because he said it aloud. After months of gathering evidence about the president’s efforts to block his investigation, he said, “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” But he didn’t.

Neither could he say that the president indeed had committed a crime, as he explained, for two reasons: In fairness, no prosecutor should allege a crime that will not be the subject of indictment and trial, because that deprives the accused of a forum to determine guilt or innocence. And the president, according to Justice Department policy that the special counsel must obey, cannot be indicted and tried while in office.

That reasoning, of course, is exactly the opposite of what Barr claimed when he presented his version of the Mueller Report. Back then the attorney general insisted Mueller’s decision about charging Trump had not relied upon that Justice Department policy. Even while he indicated that Barr had lied about that salient issue, Mueller said he “appreciated” the attorney general’s decision to release the report and doesn’t question “his good faith.”

Well played — as was his implicit rebuke to Trump when he concluded by praising the fairness and professionalism of the prosecutors, FBI agents, analysts, and staffers. Unlike the president who has disparaged them so viciously over the past two years, Mueller described them as serving with “the highest integrity.”

The departing special counsel will now return to private life, after a long career devoted to the FBI and the Justice Department. While he emphasized his wish not to testify publicly in Congress, that is not a decision for him to make — and in fact many significant questions about his investigation still require answers. (Perhaps the House Judiciary Committee should also call a few of his deputies, who may be more willing to testify.)

According to his associates, Mueller’s demurral is meant to express his distaste for “politicizing” the Russia investigation. But on the most pressing political issue that we face today, he said on Wednesday what everyone in Washington already knows about his report.

The special counsel could not indict Trump. And he would not clear Trump, who has obviously violated the public trust and several federal statutes. So, as usual, he consulted the relevant rules and regulations, which led him directly to the Constitution — a document that “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

If that isn’t an impeachment referral, then what is?

 

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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