Growing up in northern New York, a land of harsh and snowy winters, summer days were a gift to be enjoyed outdoors. The summer of 1974, however, will forever be seared in my memory as the summer we spent glued to the news. The entire country was riveted by the Watergate drama unfolding in Washington, eager to learn the truth and reclaim our government as a beacon of hope and opportunity rather than a den of corruption and opportunism.
Those of us who came of age during the Watergate era again feel the weight of that period in our history—rooted deeply in constitutional consciousness—with the issuance of the Mueller report.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many people were willed away from the sidelines and onto the ballot by the desire to restore faith in our democracy. Like many of my freshman colleagues in the most diverse Congress in history, I felt called to serve because I knew we had a duty to reclaim our government. We knew the American people deserved better.
Today, I serve as the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. As I undertake the heavy task of digesting, analyzing, and reacting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, that duty to country is front of mind. The report is incredibly dense—certainly not tweetable—and shows a presidency founded on opportunism, lacking in understanding of history or the functions of government, and devoid of respect for public service or the rule of law.
Despite what the president and his allies have claimed, this report is not the end of the story. It is a road map to guide Congress’s next steps.
The special counsel directs Congress’s attention to four areas of inquiry: obstruction of justice, coordination by the Trump campaign with the Russian government, 14 ongoing criminal investigations, and the president’s refusal to provide forthright answers to the special counsel’s questions.
Investigating each of these four areas demanded lengthy and thorough work by the Mueller team. But with Attorney General William Barr refusing to be transparent about the totality of that work, including the underlying evidence, Congress must recover and review this evidence in order to fulfill its constitutional duties and restore the American people’s faith in both the process and the results of that process.
The evidence this report presents, preserves, and alludes to, and the misleading way the attorney general delivered it to the public, leaves many questions unanswered. That is why the committees of jurisdiction must continue to conduct oversight. Congressional hearings are not just grandstanding; they allow for serious testing of evidence—an essential part of constitutional oversight. Congress, and through it the American people, must question witnesses and review evidence, not for partisan reasons or political theatre, but to examine the harm done to our democratic institutions by this administration’s lack of transparency and integrity, and determine the consequences.
Our approach must be methodical, fair, and transparent—taking no options off the table. Our democracy has been tested before, but the serious implications of the Mueller report demand an appropriate response from Congress.
Given the stakes, we should not rush to impeachment. Impeachment is a process that cannot be undertaken for the benefit of one political party, nor should it be taken off the table out of fear of political fallout. It is the last and worst—but sometimes necessary—option, when other paths have failed.
Mueller’s statement that he believed he was legally prohibited from recommending criminal charges against a sitting president is an invitation to other government institutions to take action.
As Congress’s oversight continues, any attempts by the president to hinder investigations or run out the clock must be challenged. No one is above the law. While Mueller issued his report with the understanding that he could not charge a sitting president, that does not insulate the president from congressional inquiry or prosecution once his term is complete. Given the possibility of post-presidential indictments under this guidance, Congress or the courts may need to act to suspend or toll relevant statutes of limitations in the interests of justice. This moment in our history undoubtedly qualifies as an extreme circumstance.
Seldom do we look to the darkest days of our history for reassurance of our democracy’s strength. Memories of the summer of 1974 ground me in the seriousness of what we face as a country. Chief among my memories of that time are not those of a president’s fall from grace, but those of the courage displayed by the journalists who kept us informed, the diligence of the independent counsel and his team in their investigation, the unrattled moral compass of members of Congress as they followed the evidence, and the American people’s desire for information and vindication of their democracy.
This is not a time for easy answers and hashtag solutions, although our most tweetable founding father, Ben Franklin, told us that our Constitution created “a republic, if you can keep it.” The responsibility of safeguarding our democracy does not rest solely with Congress. It is a responsibility shared by all of the American people. It is my hope that as we separate facts from slogans, the American people demand no less than they deserve.