Commentary: Rep. Mike Quigley: Wait and indict Trump when he’s out of office? No. Start impeachment inquiry now.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before two House committees last week showed the American people why an impeachment inquiry is the only option Congress has left.
There were few new revelations in Mueller’s testimony, which was not a surprise. However, something significant occurred during my line of questioning that should not get lost in the course of the lengthy hearing.
I asked Mueller to clarify again that he had not recommended indicting the president on obstruction of justice charges in part because of an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice that states that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller confirmed that this was true. I then asked Mueller if the president — or any president — could be indicted after leaving office. Mueller said that they could. Finally, I asked Mueller what would happen if a president was still in office when the statute of limitations ran out on a crime. On this important question Mueller paused, thought through such a scenario and ultimately didn’t have a ready answer.
The statute of limitations for obstruction of justice, a central focus of the Mueller report, is only five years. If the president were to win reelection, and therefore serve a total of eight years in office, the statute of limitations would expire during his presidency.
At its core, the OLC policy, last updated in 2000, claims that a sitting president cannot be indicted because it would undermine the executive branch’s ability to carry out its constitutionally assigned functions. The opinion cites that theoretically, the statute of limitations on a crime could be frozen during the duration of a presidency. However, just as with the rest of the OLC policy, this is merely the opinion of DOJ officials, not law. It has never been tested by the Supreme Court and legal experts disagree over whether such a pause is even possible.
It would be negligent on the part of Congress, at the very least, to rely on this untested DOJ opinion. If the Department of Justice’s current policy means that a president cannot be indicted while in office, and the statute of limitations for obstruction of justice, or any other possible charge, expires while a president is in office, then the president effectively enjoys immunity from ever facing charges for a crime that any other American would have to answer for. This policy needs to change immediately. Until it does, President Donald Trump could permanently evade the consequences of his crimes by winning reelection
When I speak to my constituents, the word I hear most is accountability. “When will the president be held accountable to the American people?” As a member of the intelligence committee, it is my job to ensure that accountability. As the country and our caucus debate the merits of an impeachment inquiry, we must examine the systems that would allow Trump — or any future president — to escape it, simply by running out the clock.
We said it over and over again during Mueller’s testimony — no one is above the law. But as long as this DOJ policy remains in place, we are sending a clear message that, in fact, the president is above the law. I find that unacceptable. Yes, DOJ should reverse this policy immediately, and Congress should step in and provide a clear legal standard. However, with a president under a cloud of legitimate legal scrutiny and Republicans in Congress committed to aiding and abetting him, there is only one way to ensure the president is held accountable for his actions: opening an impeachment inquiry.
For all the complaints about the vague conclusions of Mueller’s report, at its heart is one certainty: It’s up to Congress to decide what happens next.
Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat, represents the 5th Congressional District of Illinois.