One glaring analytical error we’re seeing in the coverage of Robert Mueller’s findings is the idea that we’re suddenly in a “post-Mueller” political world. The suggestion is that there’s been a sudden, clean break from a rapidly receding past in which the special counsel’s activity threatened President Donald Trump, to a new future in which it does not.
The reality is quite different. In fact, while Mueller’s no-conspiracy finding does close one chapter of this affair, the Mueller probe and its spinoffs added substantial new material to the building case against Trump’s corruption, and they have spawned other investigations that will keep that process moving forward.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is hoping to seize this moment to redouble the focus on Trump’s corruption. As a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate, Warren is well positioned to try to ensure that this is central to the case against Trump’s reelection in 2020.
Warren has just introduced in the Senate a sweeping measure called the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act, which requires the president, vice president and their close family members to divest in all financial interests that create conflicts of interest and place them in a blind trust.
The bill would also bar presidential appointees from participating in matters involving the president’s financial interests and would require the president and major-party presidential nominees to release three years of tax returns.
“Corruption has always been the central stain of this presidency,” Warren said in a statement emailed to me. “This bill would force President Trump to fully divest from the same Trump properties and assets that special interests have spent two-plus years patronizing to try and curry favor with this administration - all while lining the President’s pockets.”
- Democrats are pledging real swamp-drainage
As a candidate, Trump pushed a myth of himself as a self-made outsider businessman (built on a fortune inflated by extensive tax fraud), while vowing to employ his personal experience buying politicians to “drain the swamp” of elite corruption and take on plutocrats who rig the economy and tax code to enrich themselves.
Instead, as president, he has personally blazed new trails of elite corruption with nonstop self-enrichment off the presidency, while handing the plutocrats a deregulation spree that further rigged the economy in their interests, and a massive corporate tax cut they helped him sell by actively feeding the illusion that it was pro-worker.
Warren has offered perhaps the most comprehensive policy response to all the issues raised by this Trumpian nexus of personal and political corruption, rolling out plans to tax extreme wealth, push big corporations toward more socially responsible behavior, and curb big money’s influence over politics.
All this comes as the Democratic Party more broadly is coalescing around an ambitious anti-corruption agenda as a central piece of its answer to Trumpism. Also on Wednesday, numerous Democratic senators will introduce their own version of H.R. 1, the massive bill that House Democrats recently passed, which would fortify ethics and transparency rules in all kinds of ways.
Warren’s proposal to require the president to divest - which she has introduced before and is now introducing for the first time in the new Congress - adds yet another dimension to her evolving agenda, one focused on Trump’s particular abuses and on how to prevent them from happening again.
- A “post-Mueller” focus on Trump’s corruption
Trump’s corruption provides a natural focal point for Democrats going forward after the conclusion of the Mueller investigation. That’s because this conclusion does not mean “total exoneration” for Trump in the slightest.
Because of all these investigations and their consequences, Trump has been implicated in a criminal hush-money scheme to pay off women alleging affairs, and we’ve learned he tried to negotiate an enormous real estate deal with the Kremlin’s help while Republican voters were picking their 2016 nominee - and lied to America about both.
We have also learned from Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen that Trump may have gamed his assets for insurance and tax fraud purposes - and that clues to these potential crimes may lie in his tax returns. Cohen also says those returns might shed light on his family’s extensive history of tax fraud.
All that has led to a plethora of other investigations into multiple Trump organizations, which largely grew out of the Mueller investigation. Some of what we learned has created new avenues of inquiry for House Democrats, who are looking into everything from Trump’s role in the hush-money scheme, to whether Trump’s lawyers coached Cohen to lie to Congress about his Moscow project, to his financial entanglements with Russia. What we’ve learned should also spur Democrats to press for Trump’s tax returns.
For all the triumphalism among Trumpists right now, it’s at least possible that if more is released on what Mueller actually found - or if Democrats can pry that loose by subpoena - it could add fodder for those inquiries.
Given that the White House is resisting all Democratic subpoena requests - something that we should remember in tandem with likely Trump efforts to keep Mueller’s findings buried - it’s hard to say where all this will end up. But one thing that’s clear is that the focus on Trump’s corruption will continue to intensify and broaden.
The emerging narrative is that demoralized Democrats are debating how to “move on” from Mueller. But Democrats don’t have to get drawn into that debate. That’s because the Mueller probe and its spinoffs have actually made the political terrain a lot more fertile for the focus on Trump’s corruption than before. And the ongoing ripple effects of those investigations will continue to do so.
Greg Sargent is a columnist with The Washington Post.