I’m tempted to write “Since when do congressional Republicans defy Trump?” but today would be the wrong day to make that point.
Still, surprising. An (almost) unanimous vote in favor of transparency, even at the risk of potentially embarrassing the president?
The asterisk in the headline, by the way, is due to the fact that four Republicans — libertarians Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, Paul Gosar, and Trump buddy Matt Gaetz — voted “present.”
“I’ve said to millions of Americans on television that I support releasing the Mueller report,” Gaetz told The Hill on his decision to vote present.
“I take specific exception to the elements of the resolution noting praise for Mueller, without also noting the criticism of his very biased staffing decisions,” he added. “It’s like he was fishing for talent in the Hillary Clinton fan club aquarium.”…
The measure — introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — argues there is “overwhelming public interest” to release the contents of the high-profile report. The resolution calls on the department to fully release the report to Congress and to release it to the public “except to the extent the public disclosure of any portion thereof is expressly prohibited by law.”
“Why shouldn’t Republicans support transparency here?” you might say. “All signs right now point to Mueller finding no collusion with Russia, at least not by Trump, in the final report. Disclosure will vindicate him.” Right, but there’s still some risk that Mueller will accuse Trump of collusion. If you’re a Republican, wouldn’t you rather leave it in Bill Barr’s discretion as to whether to release Mueller’s findings considering that (a) Barr is Trump’s handpicked AG, (b) an outspoken skeptic of certain aspects of Mueller’s investigation, and (c) unlike congressional Republicans, he’ll actually know the contents of the report when he makes his decision?
Remember what the regs require of Barr here:
Under the regulation governing Mr. Mueller’s work, he must submit a report at the conclusion of his investigation to the U.S. attorney general explaining his decisions to pursue or decline prosecutions, including explanations of cases he investigated but he decided not to bring charges.
The attorney general, William Barr, must then notify Congress, but is only required to alert specific lawmakers that the probe has ended and describe instances when he overrode a decision by Mr. Mueller. Mr. Barr can release the report publicly if he decides it is in the public interest. He has said he wants to provide as much transparency as possible, but has stopped short of promising to release the report in its entirety.
Imagine Mueller informs Barr that he would have indicted Trump for obstruction of justice but for the fact that DOJ policy holds that a sitting president can’t be indicted — a not unlikely outcome. Left to his own devices, Barr might decide not to share that information with the public, reasoning that it’d be bad for the country to have the president operating under the shadow of an indictment. The DOJ can always indict him after he leaves office. If the House resolution prevailed, though (and assuming it *was* binding), Barr would have to share it. It’s very much in Democrats’ interest to have that happen. It’s not in Republicans’ interest.
And it’s not like the House GOP couldn’t have found a fig leaf here to justify opposing the resolution on “principled” grounds. They could have made a separation-of-powers argument about respecting the prerogatives of the executive branch, the extant DOJ regulations, and the good judgment of Bill Barr by refusing to purport to tell the AG how to do his job. As it is, what happens if Barr decides not to release the report and rumors start appearing in the papers that Mueller told Barr there’s probable cause to believe Trump obstructed justice? House Republicans are now (almost) unanimously on record as believing that that information should be released. How can they change their minds later?
None of this is meant as a criticism, by the way. They voted the right way. It’s just so … unlike them to do so. Maybe they looked at the polls, saw overwhelming public support for making the report public, and figured there’s not much harm in supporting a non-binding resolution that keeps them on the right side of voters. After all, if Mueller does point a finger at Trump, House Republicans will suddenly be looking for ways to distance themselves from him. This is one way to do that, something they can point to as evidence that they want accountability for the president too. Plus, getting the full unclassified report released might be the only way to prevent both sides from selectively leaking about its contents. If Mueller alleges obstruction of justice but finds no collusion, a Democrat with a copy of the report will obviously whisper to the media about the former, not the latter. (Vice versa for a Republican with a copy, of course.) The report’s going to come out piecemeal anyway; might as well support full publication. This genie is too magical to both sides to stay in the bottle.