October 19, 2021

SUNY professor dissects Mueller report

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland, discusses the Mueller report Saturday at the Homer Center for the Arts.

How, Barbara Poskanzer asked, did Rod Rosenstein continue to oversee Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, after Rosenstein was involved in the firing of former FBI director James Comey and also a witness to alleged acts of obstruction of justice?

“Rosenstein — I can’t quite figure him out,” said Robert Spitzer, a political professor at SUNY Cortland, during a talk Saturday at the Center for the Arts in Homer. Rosenstein, said Spitzer, was the center “of the vortex of a lot of competing forces within the FBI, the Justice Department, the Trump administration … and he seemed politically at times all over the map.”

Spitzer speculated that Rosenstein was performing a balancing act between these different forces until the Mueller investigation reached its conclusion.

Poskanzer, who lives in Florida but was visiting family in Cortland where she grew up, didn’t think Spitzer quite answered her question, but acknowledged it was a tough one.

Poskanzer was one of roughly 80 people who showed up for “Mulling Over the Mueller Report,” sponsored by Indivisible Cortland County, a progressive grassroots civic group formed after the 2016 election.

Spitzer, who has written four books on the presidency, spoke for about 40 minutes, then took questions for another 40 minutes. There’s a difference between “collusion,” which is not a legal term, and “conspiracy,” which is a federal crime, he said. Trump, he said, has exploited confusion over these two terms, “incessantly” crowing that there was “no collusion.”

However, the Mueller report makes clear it doesn’t concern collusion, he said. The report was intended to investigate possible criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and agents of the Russian government, as well as obstruction of justice, which takes up the second half of the report.

However, it’s difficult to determine the implications of the Mueller Report because of how much was redacted, Spitzer said, pointing particularly to sections pertaining to Wikileaks, large chunks of which are blacked out because of ongoing criminal investigations.

Spitzer also addressed the Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, a policy Mueller said he followed. Where did this policy come from?

“Well, actually it came from the Nixon administration,” he said. “What a surprise.”

The policy was further embraced by the Clinton White House when Bill Clinton was impeached.

Spitzer gave this analogy: Imagine a situation in which a president becomes enraged at a cabinet secretary, whom he then murders with “the ceremonial sword given to him by the Sultanate of Brunei.”

The logical conclusion of this policy, then, is that “an obvious murderer could not be subject to a criminal proceeding until such time as that person left office,” he said.

Nevertheless, Robert Mueller was guided by this policy, and his report reflects this basic constraint.

A number of audience members asked Spitzer about impeachment, and Spitzer considered various scenarios, which he didn’t see as likely to be successful in unseating Trump.

Regarding Russian election interference, Spitzer went further than many Trump critics, who think “that Trump doesn’t care if Russia intervenes.”

“I think Trump wants Russia to intervene,” he said. “… They helped him the first time. He’s president. I mean, you can argue, ‘Well, they didn’t help him that much.’ But I think it’s clear from the information, that it’s against the Democrats and in favor of Trump. I think he wants their help. Why would he not want their involvement? If they’ve already been involved once — if once is good, then why not twice?”