LEWISTON — Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance has been paying rapt attention to every detail of the unfolding scandal around President Donald Trump that has led to the prosecution of some of the president’s top aides.

Despite her effort to absorb every available detail, the MSNBC legal commentator told more than 150 people gathered Thursday at Bates College she does not have any idea what the final report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel at the center of the investigation, is going to say.

“We’d all like to read something long and detailed,” Vance said. “I fear we’ll be disappointed.”

Vance, who worked as a prosecutor in Alabama for a quarter of a century, said it appears there is much left to explore, but it is not clear Mueller will be the one to dig deeper into some of the issues that have been raised.

Instead, she said, federal and state attorneys in New York, the District of Columbia and perhaps other states are likely to pick up some of the issues Mueller might not address.

There is talk that Mueller, appointed in May 2017 to investigate possible Russian collusion by the Trump campaign and related matters, is looking to wrap up his work soon. But Vance said that is difficult to believe given the breadth of the matters he is investigating and the relatively short time he has been on the job.

Vance, a 1982 Bates graduate, said the Mueller probe used to seem straightforward, but it has grown “infinitely more complex” as new threads continue to emerge.

“It’s become all but impossible to keep up with,” she said.

Former prosecutor Joyce White Vance speaks with Lewiston residents Dick and Diane Grandmaison after her speech Thursday at Bates College. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

Vance said those who say the prosecutor’s steady effort to build a case is a “witch hunt” are off the mark.

What the public is really seeing, she said, “is the rule of law in real time” unfolding in front of us, looking the way we would expect it to proceed.

Prosecutors need to figure out whether crimes have been committed, gather evidence and figure out if they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of having violated the law, Vance said. That is not a political process, she said, but the necessary ingredients to give our political system “the integrity it needs to function.”

That Mueller is quietly doing his job despite the venom directed at him is an indication American institutions “are stretched but so far they appear to be holding.”

One criticism often leveled at Mueller is that he is taking too long.

But Vance said she is impressed with how quickly the special counsel has pushed forward, while dealing with the inevitable complications of having so many foreign figures in the case and difficult financial tangles.

When it is all over, she said, Mueller “is not going to drag the president of the United States out of the White House,” as some hope. At most, he might offer Congress evidence that could lead to impeachment, though there is no telling what other prosecutors working on the case in other jurisdictions might do.

MSNBC legal commentator Joyce White Vance talked Thursday about the Mueller investigation at Bates College. (Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins)

Vance said it is significant that Mueller has already brought cases against 34 people and three companies, including Trump’s lawyer, his national security adviser and his campaign manager, and 26 Russians, a Russian troll farm and two companies that funded it.

She called it remarkable that one president has had so many aides indicted in two years on the job. And given their backgrounds, she added, “you have to wonder what kind of vetting was going on” that some of them were ever hired in the first place.

“It’s really amazing,” Vance said.

The “red meat” of the probe to date, she said, is the troll farm exposed by Mueller that showed how Russians tricked voters into falling in line with Russian propaganda, even attending campaign rallies in Florida put together by Russian agents.

Vance said it is astonishing that “Americans fell for this, but they did.”

Even so, she said, it is not clear whether Trump or his campaign actually colluded with the Russians.

The evidence presented so far only shows they went “right up to the edge,” Vance said.

She said the country deserves to know what happened and how it is important to the functioning of American government.

“There is no way to move forward” otherwise, she said, because people need to know if the obvious “shady behavior” extended to something more nefarious.

As a consequence, Vance said, “it’s incredibly important that we stay engaged” and continue to try to support the rule of law and to let prosecutors, who are not a partisan bunch, finish their work.

Vance warned there is no doubt a lot of information the public does not know, including evidence that might support the arguments of the president’s defenders.

“A lot of what the public sees is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “In many regards, we just have to watch and wait.”

Even so, she said, the scandal looks to her like “Watergate on steroids,” as President Richard Nixon’s team of burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committe headquarters in 1972 had been Russians.

Vance said, too, that even if it is impossible to say whether Trump broke the law, there is enough evidence to show others around him did.

For instance, she said, it’s hard to figure how Donald Trump Jr. “doesn’t get indicted” based solely on what is already known about his role in setting up a Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Russians and the Trump campaign.

Vance’s speech was sponsored by the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates and the college’s politics department. It drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Muskie Archives.

[email protected]

filed under: