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By Kurt Bardella, NBC News THINK contributor
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month-long investigation into the relationship between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia is finally over, bringing an end to this dramatic investigative chapter into the activities of the American president and those closest to him.
But the thing is, this was just chapter one. Anyone thinking or hoping that the completion of the Mueller report would be the finale of the story will be sorely disappointed.
Because the next chapter belongs to Attorney General William Barr and the new Democratic majority in the House as they fight for full access to the report and the underlying evidence used to compile it. And remember, while Mueller’s long-awaited report was submitted to the Justice Department on Friday, Barr has yet to determine what will be publicly revealed to Congress, if anything at all.
Because while the report itself is important, the next few chapters of this investigation belongs to Congress and the new Democratic majority in the House.
First, Congressional oversight committees will fight for possession of the Mueller report. Then, they will use the Mueller report as a blueprint to guide their investigations into every part of Donald Trump’s presidency including his foreign policy decisions, financial interests, political activities, and personal relationships.
Just three months ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that “some of it should be sanitized…I’ll trust Mr. Barr too work with us to get as much out as we can.” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, advocated for the president’s legal team to have the right to “correct it” before the report is made public or released to Congress.
Anything short of releasing the full, un-redacted report to Congress will presumably result in a high-stakes standoff between Congress and the executive branch. Should the attorney general fail to voluntarily produce the report, Congressional committees will subpoena the Justice Department for it. If the DOJ refuses to comply with the subpoena, a lawsuit will be filed and this could end up in the Supreme Court’s hands. Meanwhile, newly minted private citizen Robert Mueller will almost certainly be invited to testify at a congressional hearing to discuss his report’s findings.
Withholding or sanitizing the Mueller report is a political loser for the president. Recent polls reveal that nearly 9 in ten Americans believe the full report should be made public. This is also a tough fight for Congressional Republicans given their past rhetoric about transparency and oversight during President Barack Obama’s time in office.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the ranking Republican on the Committee on Oversight and Reform, said this during a 2012 proceeding about getting documents from the Justice Department: “How can you ignore the facts when you don’t get the facts? That’s what this is all about…I just want to get the information…I think we’re right on target with this. We just want the information so we have the facts.”
At that same proceeding, former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., then a member of the House Oversight Committee and now a Fox News contributor, opined that “the notion that you can withhold information and documents from Congress no matter whether you are the party in power or not in power is wrong. Respect for the rule of law must mean something, irrespective of the vicissitudes of political cycles.”
In fact, oversight Republicans’ fight with then Eric Holder’s Justice Department over the release of documents related to “Operation Fast and Furious” is instructive now. Following President Obama’s use of executive privilege to ignore a Congressional subpoena, Republicans filed a lawsuit in district court declaring, “The Attorney General’s conception of the reach of ‘Executive privilege,’ were it to be accepted, would cripple congressional oversight of Executive branch agencies, to the very detriment of the Nation and our constitutional structure.” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed, who is also the judge presiding over Roger Stone’s case, ruled against the Justice Department.
If Barr and the Trump White House resist efforts by Congress to get the full report, history could repeat itself.
Once they’ve acquired the report, the real force of congressional oversight will be felt. Investigators will comb through every thread of evidence to create multiple lanes of oversight inquiries. Statements made to Mueller and his team will be cross-referenced with statements made to Congress during public hearings or depositions. Officials who have any inconsistencies in their testimonies will be called upon by Congress to address them under the threat of perjury. The Mueller report will effectively serve as the foundation of a forensic autopsy Congress will conduct examining every controversial decision the Trump administration has made.
In short, Democrats in Congress are gearing up to fulfill their oversight responsibilities in a manner entirely consistent with what Republicans called for during the Obama years. As House Republicans declared in 2010, “Congress is constitutionally obligated to provide thorough oversight of the Executive Branch. This obligation is recognized by scholars and the Courts and by the American public that expects its federal government to root out waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and misconduct.”
Their words. Their standard. Now Trump will have to live with it.