Midterm elections: Congressional shake-up means Robert Mueller’s investigation is entering a new chapter

Analysis: Midterms appear to be the end of the beginning for Donald Trump’s Russiagate woes

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 07 November 2018 18:45 GMT
Will the midterms give new life to the Robert Mueller investigation into possible collusion with Russia?
Will the midterms give new life to the Robert Mueller investigation into possible collusion with Russia? (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

The results of the US midterm elections were broadly as expected and may not appear, on the surface, to be too bad for Donald Trump. The Democrats won the House, but the Republicans increased their grip, albeit slightly, on the Senate.

The outcome, however, is of great significance for the investigations into whether the US president was the Muscovian candidate for the White House, put there by Vladimir Putin.

It may also go towards shedding more light into Trump’s personal finances, which he has managed to keep opaque. This is not just relating to his tax returns, which unlike previous presidents he has failed to produce, but also allegations about the financing of his property companies.

The plus factor for Mr Trump is that the increased Republican majority in the Senate makes it easier for him to fire the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Indeed Mr Sessions was forced out by Wednesday afternoon. The Democrats are now less able to protect Mr Rosenstein, who - along with Mr Sessions - the president and his cheerleaders have publicly blamed for failing to curb special envoy Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion.

But the scenario that some of the president’s supporters have envisaged – one in which either of the replacements for Mr Sessions and Mr Rosenstein shut down the Mueller inquiry - is now unlikely, with the Democrats in charge of the House exploring measures to safeguard the special envoy’s task.

Mr Mueller and his team have kept a low profile in the run-up to the midterms by observing the justice department custom of not issuing indictments in the 60 days leading up to an election, or making any major pronouncements about the investigation.

This is what James Comey, when FBI director, singularly failed to do during the 2016 presidential election, announcing that he was re-opening the case of Hillary Clinton’s emails – an intervention that damaged her campaign and contributed to her losing at the polls.

The only thing of note about the Mueller probe in recent weeks has been a plot by right-wing activists involving false allegations against the special envoy, which quickly fell apart after checks by the media. Mr Mueller asked the FBI to look into the claims against him and this may lead to another line of inquiry if the attempted smear is shown to have any links with the Trump team.

The obvious question now is if and when impeachment proceedings will begin. A Washington Post-Schar School poll of battleground districts showed that nearly two-thirds of those who voted Democrat want congress to begin the process to remove Trump from office. A CNN exit poll found 77 per cent of Democrats and 33 per cent describing themselves as independents supported impeachment.

Democratic Party leaders, however, are cautious, with Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, saying she would not want to start proceedings without the backing of some Republicans. The move, she held, “would have to be bipartisan and the evidence would have to be so conclusive”.

The main source of any incriminating evidence would be Mr Mueller’s report, which may come before Christmas, although the timing is dependent on whether or not he gets to question Mr Trump. But, in the meantime, the switch in the control of the House means that the volume of investigations into Trump, his family and associates is going to rise significantly.

One of the main topics of interest is inevitably Trump’s tax returns. Representative Richard Neal, who is due to head the Ways and Means Committee, has said he will ask Trump for them and, if he continues to refuse providing them, formally request the documents using IRS rules – a process that could take months through the courts.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee has also stressed that it is going to be active. Elijah Cummings, who is expected to lead the committee, has wanted to stress he will try to be bipartisan.

“I don’t want people to think we are going to rush in and beat up on Trump,” he said, before adding that the plan is to look at “all things the president has done that go against the mandates of our founding fathers in the Constitution”. He said: “Right now, we have a president who is accountable to no one.”

Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee have stated they will be looking at a range of issues, including the Trump administration separating refugee families, its reaction to the rise of white nationalism and the failure to defend the Affordable Care Act in a Texas court case.

Representative Jerry Nadler from New York, who will head the committee, is familiar with Mr Trump’s real estate business in the city, which is part of a separate investigation. He said: “Donald Trump may not like it, but, for the first time, his administration is going to be held accountable.”

The allegations that Russians, including those in organised crime groups, were involved in Trump companies, is going to be one of the issues looked at by the House Intelligence Committee.

Representative Adam Schiff, who will be heading it, told CNN: “The question that I don’t know whether Mueller has been able to answer, because I don’t know whether he has been given the licence to look into it, is ‘Were the Russians laundering money through the Trump organisation?’ And that will be a very high priority to get an answer to, for the reason that, if they were doing it, it’s not only a crime, but it’s something provable.”

The committee is also said to be interested in the Trump family’s dealings with Deutsche Bank and what took place during talks at Trump Tower between Russians and Donald Trump Junior, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. The British music promoter, Rob Goldstone, who arranged the meeting, has given evidence to the Mueller inquiry and Russia investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

What do the midterms mean for Trump?

The activities of the House Intelligence Committee will be of particular interest. It was accused of trying to carry out a cover-up for Trump in the Russia investigation with its previous Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, having to step down temporarily last year after it was revealed that he had made secret trips to the White House.

Under him, the committee sent two officials to London in an attempt, it was claimed, to discredit Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who produced the explosive dossier on Trump’s Russian connection.

The Mueller investigation, meanwhile, continues. One of the latest lines of examination is the role of Trump advisor Roger Stone, who according to leaked emails told the Trump campaign that Democratic Party emails said to have been hacked by the Russians were about to come out before they became public.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, has testified under oath in open court that the president directed him to commit an election law felony. Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security advisor, both already convicted, continue to be cooperating witnesses. Thirty-two people have already been charged so far in the investigation.

The midterms, as they have turned out, have not been the beginning of the end for Mr Trump’s Russiagate woes; they appear instead to be just the end of the beginning – with a lot more to come out as the new-look congress begins its scrutiny of the president.

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