My View: Mueller has spoken; now what?

Ruth Johnson

Robert Mueller made it clear in the special counsel’s report and in his May 29 public statement: the Russians made multiple, systematic attempts to interfere with our presidential election in 2016.

Even if the bullets and bombs of warfare were replaced by computer hacking, malign bots, and reposted fake tweets, this was an attack by a foreign adversary on our country. As Mueller said, every American needs to pay attention to this fact. Moreover, we also know that the Russians made further attempts against our elections in 2018, and that they likely will do so again in 2020.

Even more troubling is the evidence of 10 efforts, carefully outlined between pages Volume II, pages 44 to 158 in the report, of President Trump interfering in the Russia investigation. A statement has been signed by some 1,000 former federal prosecutors that Mueller’s evidence would lead to a criminal indictment of President Trump for obstruction of justice were he not president.

Department of Justice policy holds that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but evidence of wrongdoing can be collected and preserved for either impeachment by Congress now or for criminal prosecution once a president is out of office. There is an important difference between what can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to meet a criminal standard in a trial yet to happen and what anyone can see is just plain wrong. The president is not above the law.

It’s easy to feel dragged down as the news drags on about the Russian election attack and efforts to investigate how to prevent further such attacks. We have yet to learn about broader national security threats under investigation and the implications of President Trump’s financial dealings with Russian oligarchs. Congress must take decisive action to safeguard our country from Russian election interference in the future, and from any of several other adversaries. We have to get the fix right.

In this moment, it is helpful to remember the 1972 Watergate Break-in scandal and how President Nixon later resigned in 1974 at the urging of respected Republican congressional leaders when crimes were revealed in the Watergate hearings. It took several years, but the truth came out despite the cover-up, and criminals went to prison.

When President Nixon’s Legal Counsel John Dean made his first speech on a college campus after completing incarceration for his Watergate crimes, I was in the audience at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Dean gave a truthful, compelling account of what Watergate was all about; he had been “in the room,” after all. During the Q and A after his speech, I asked Dean if he thought the 1972 Congressional investigation led by Congressman Wright Patman of Texas might have ended the cover-up much sooner if that investigation had not been shut down by the White House and congressional Republicans. Possibly so, he said.

It took a while, but the crimes came to light. We finally even got the handwritten notes taken by Nixon White House aide Robert Haldeman that corroborated the audio tape made when he and Nixon were discussing the break-in cover-up efforts.

As much as the Watergate break-in was a threat to this country as a criminal political act to influence an election, it was, so to speak, at least an inside job as compared to the attack on the 2016 election by the Russians.

It will take more time to better understand exactly how this Russian attack on our election happened and how our president’s financial dealings with Russian oligarchs put our country at risk. Voices in Congress are urging an impeachment inquiry, televised as were the Watergate hearings, to provide broader public understanding of the Russian election attack and the troubling connection to our president and his campaign. We need a strong, united response to this attack on our country.

While all this gets resolved, we can take heart remembering the story told by Danish pianist/comedian Victor Borge about King Christian in his royal uniform, riding through the streets of Copenhagen every day to hearten his subjects during the German occupation. Borge recounts, a German soldier saw the King riding down a street full of German soldiers and said to a nearby Dane, “There goes your King; he has no security guards; who is protecting him?” The Dane looked at the German soldier and replied, “We are.”

While Congress and our political leaders are sorting things out and we try to keep up with the news, we the people are in charge of daily life in America. We take care of our country by going to work or school, looking after our businesses, families, neighbors, and friends — all the things that matter every day. And, of course, by voting.

Who is taking care of our country? We are.

Ruth Johnson is a former DFL member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, two-time candidate for lieutenant governor and former administrator at Gustavus Adolphus College.

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