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Mueller probe into Russian interference in Trump campaign shows checks and balances on US presidents loosening

This scandal has been at least four years in the making. It was, after all, the outgoing president Barack Obama who first imposed sanctions on Russia and kicked out nearly 35 diplomats as a result of allegations that Russians had hacked the US election in favour of Donald Trump. Since then that particular story has been on a rock-and-roll ride, from the time an investigation was authorised by the attorney-general in May 2017, headed by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, to the presenting of the final report awaited gleefully by the media.

Not that it hasn't been a bit of a let down. As Attorney-General William Barr observed, "the investigation had employed 19 lawyers who were assisted by a team of approximately 40 FBI agents/professionals… issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communication records, issued almost 50 orders authorising use of pen registers, made 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence, and interviewed approximately 500 witnesses". Thereafter, all that has been released to the public is a mere couple of paragraphs, which is essentially the summary provided to Congress. But this is US democracy in action — some good , some not-so-good, and definitely corroding under the present onslaught.

 Mueller probe into Russian interference in Trump campaign shows checks and balances on US presidents loosening

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

The showcasing of a working democracy was the setting up of the investigation and its mandate. First, a Special Counsel was assigned, rather than an Independent Counsel as in the past, with far greater independence of action. Second, the order stated that the Special Counsel was to  investigate  any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Trump; and (ii)  any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;. The third aspect simply referred to "any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4a".

That's the interesting addition and is likely to be the focus of future speculation and Congressional focus. The particular Federal Regulation states, "The jurisdiction of a Special Counsel shall also include the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses…”

That is actually the crux of the whole, and the shameful trail of incidents that followed the beginning of the scandal. This began with the dismissal of then FBI director James Comey who was leading investigations into the allegations of Russian interference, the requested resignation of then attorney-general Jeff Sessions — perhaps due to his refusal to intervene in the investigation, the imprisonment on the request of the president, the imprisonment of 'fixer' Michael Cohen for various less-than-savoury reasons including hush payments to women; the arrest of Republican "operative" Paul Manafort, described as a 'hardened criminal' with links to possible Russian intelligence operatives, and within all this and more, the president's attempts to either get some of these individuals off with a pardon, or vilify them when they did make statements to the Counsel. And finally at the end of it all, the president's triumphant declaration that he has been vindicated.

This is US democracy at its worst.

That particular statement of the president is definitely far from the truth.  The attorney-general — who will probably receive the homage of précis writers everywhere in summarising the findings of such a massive investigation — uses very careful language indeed. The summary of 'Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election' states, "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

In simple words, the evidence was not enough. Further, it did establish clearly that Russian officials had actively undermined the Hillary Clinton campaign, and multiple efforts by them to 'assist' the one on Trump. Finally, and this is the most damning of all, on the charge of obstruction, it states that "while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him". Period.

None of this is likely to fuzzy up the Trump campaign in the 2020 election. Instead, it will probably be used as political gold to shore up his image as a wronged leader, who had been the target of  a witch-hunt. Its worth noting that his position on the Mexican wall and the government shutdown that followed hasn't adversely affected his ratings. Meanwhile, his most recent reactions seem to indicate that he is likely to go after those who targeted him, especially the media. Independent Anchors and analysts need to watch their backs.

A lot of this seems familiar. South Asia is no stranger to crass politics and corruption, with even an effort to hide such looting considered unnecessary. In the land of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, it's no longer a surprise. But when this happens within what is still regarded as the most powerful country in the world, it's time to worry.

The Mueller investigation is unfortunately an indication that the checks and balances that once operated on a US president could be loosening. A future president desirous of shifting the public gaze from uncomfortable questions could far more easily take the option of starting another war in some remote outpost of the world or end another one precipitately in a cry of "bring the troops home".  For India, a future US administration's commitments to Afghanistan, its commitments on Pakistan and its consistence on China are vitally important. None of that is going to be certain anymore, hostage as they are to the more than unusually fragile popularity ratings of candidates on both sides of the spectrum. Expect a rock-and-roll ride on this too.

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 08:00:53 IST

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