It’s one of the most consequential days in recent memory in Washington, as the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly-two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election are released to the public.
We’re covering it all here. And I’m watching and reading it all – from Attorney General William Barr’s press conference on Thursday morning through the entire 300-plus-page Mueller report itself. Below you’ll find a running list of my takeaways from this most amazing day in the nation’s capital. (The takeaways are listed in chronological order – from the start of the day to the end.)
It wasn’t – and isn’t – clear to me why Barr held a press conference to discuss the report before anyone other than his team, the White House Counsel’s office and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers had read it.
Barr did A LOT of heavy lifting for Trump
The obvious reason – and it became more and more obvious as Barr spoke – was that he wanted to frame the day in a decidedly pro-Trump light. At times, Barr sounded as though he was quoting some of the President’s pushback on the Mueller investigation almost verbatim. One example:
“So that is the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, and hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the Special Counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes.”
Time and again, Barr made clear that Trump and his White House bent over backward to work with the special counsel’s office (even as the President was savaging Mueller and his team regularly on Twitter). Barr noted that while he had allowed the White House Counsel’s office and Trump’s personal lawyers to read the report, they had not been offered the chance to redact any information – nor had they requested to do so. And on the question of executive privilege, Barr had this to say: “Because the White House voluntarily cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, significant portions of the report contain material over which the President could have asserted privilege. And he would have been well within his rights to do so.” Trump chose not to do so, Barr noted.
There’s no question that Barr did exactly what Trump would have wanted in this press conference. He emphasized the lack of proof of collusion. He raised red flags about how Mueller defined episodes of obstruction (more on that below). He painted Trump as a willing partner with the special counsel, with nothing at all to hide. It was a script Trump could not have written better himself.
Obstruction is going to be THE debate in the report
Barr said that Mueller had reported on 10 instances of potential obstruction of the investigation by Trump. But he immediately sought to downplay those events by noting that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who stood by his side at the press conference with the look of a man about to face his executioner, disagreed with how Mueller interpreted some of these instances of obstruction. “Although the Deputy Attorney General and I disagreed with some of the Special Counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law, we did not rely solely on that in making our decision,” Barr said.
He then went on to offer an explanation for Trump’s conduct – casting him as someone facing an “unprecedented situation” in regard to the investigation that greeted him almost as soon as he entered the White House. “As the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” Barr said.
What’s happening here is clear: 1) Barr has read the report and likely knows the obstruction stuff in relation to the President isn’t going to look good to the public and 2) Barr is offering up an explanation – likely to be utilized by the President, his allies and the conservative media for why Trump acted the way he did vis a vis the Mueller probe. He was being targeted in unprecedented ways! There was “relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability!” He was, to not coin a phrase, the subject of a witch hunt!
Trump is going to Trump
For anyone who thought the President might sit today out on social media, leaving the talking to his lawyers, Trump proved you wrong almost as soon as he opened his eyes this morning.
“The Greatest Political Hoax of all time! Crimes were committed by Crooked, Dirty Cops and DNC/The Democrats,” he tweeted just after 7 a.m. on the East Coast. Trump followed that tweet up with this two-word gem: “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT.” (If you wonder whether the CAPS are mine or his, well, you have been living on another planet for the last two years.) Trump then went on a retweeting binge of the conservative group Judicial Watch before posting a smash-cut video of him saying “no collusion” and then a “Game of Thrones” meme with the words “Game Over” featured prominently.
At a Wounded Warrior event shortly after the release of the report, Trump said, “This should never happen to another president again, this hoax. It should never happen to another president again.”
Trump is Trump. And who that person is amounts to a mix of a conservative talk radio show host, an online troll, a bully – online and offline – and the most unconventional politician anyone has ever seen. He got elected to the White House by saying and doing things no other politician – and very few other people – would say or do. And he ain’t stopping now – Mueller report be damned.
“No collusion,” explained
In the executive summary of the collusion portion of the Mueller report, the special counsel’s office gets right to the heart of the matter on the collusion question:
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
What Mueller found then is that although one party (the Russians) sought to influence the election for Trump because they thought he would be better for their interests and the other party (the Trump campaign) believed that any and all dirt the Russians gave them on Hillary Clinton would increase Trump’s chances of winning, it didn’t amount to conspiracy or coordination (“collusion” is not a legal term) because the two sides were operating independently.
While Trump and his side were happy to get negative information about Clinton, they didn’t expressly ask the Russians in advance to go find some. And while the Russians wanted Trump to win for their own selfish purposes, they didn’t communicate that desire to the candidate or his inner circle with the proffer of damaging information.
The key, at least for Mueller, is that while all of this was going on, there was never an express agreement between the two sides that the Russian government would work to influence the election to help Trump and that Trump would welcome such an effort.
Trump was even more involved in the investigation response than we knew
The second half of the Mueller report deals with the question of obstruction. And while Mueller made no specific recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice (MUCH more on that below), he did uncover a series of previously unknown events in which the President quite clearly sought to manipulate the direction of the investigation.
* Trump not only told White House counsel Donald McGahn to remove Mueller as special counsel in June 2017 due to alleged conflicts of interest the former FBI director had, but when The New York Times later reported he had done so, Trump called McGahn into his office, asked him to deny the reports, and when McGahn refused to do so, he “challenged” the White House counsel for taking notes on their meetings and asked why he’d told the special counsel about Trump’s efforts to have Mueller removed.
* Trump, on two separate occasions, had meetings with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in which he asked Lewandowski to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he had to tell the special counsel’s office to limit its investigatory focus to future election interference. Lewandowski felt uncomfortable doing so unless in person, and he never wound up passing that request on to Sessions.
* The President personally directed a line be deleted in Donald Trump Jr.’s statement to The New York Times regarding the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians. That line acknowledged that the meeting was held, at least in part, because the Trump campaign believed the Russians might have dirt on Clinton. The edited statement said the meeting was solely a discussion about US adoption policies. Trump initially said he simply looked over his son’s statement – before changing his story.
* When former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 and began working with the special counsel, Trump met with Sessions to urge him to un-recuse himself and said doing so would make the attorney general a “hero.”
* At around the same time, Trump’s personal attorney reached out to Flynn’s attorneys to ensure that Flynn knew Trump has always had “warm feelings’ toward the former adviser and that those feelings remained. The attorney for Trump also requested that Flynn let Trump know if he was aware of any “information that implicates the President.” Flynn’s lawyers refused that offer, noting that they no longer were working under a joint defense agreement. Trump’s lawyers then responded to Flynn’s attorneys that they would report back to Trump that Flynn’s actions reflected “hostility” toward the President.
* Following the raid of Michael Cohen’s home, hotel and office, the President personally and privately passed on messages of support to Cohen even as he was publicly tweeting that Cohen would never “flip.” (Cohen did flip, eventually cooperating with both the special counsel’s office and the Southern District of New York).
Mueller didn’t exonerate Trump on obstruction because he couldn’t
It is absolutely true that Barr, along with Rosenstein, decided not to bring charges of obstruction against Trump. What is, well, much less true, is Trump’s assertion that the Mueller report totally exonerates him on that front. It expressly does not.
“(I)f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” reads the Mueller report. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. … Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
So why didn’t Mueller charge Trump for obstruction?
The answer to that question is that it’s complicated. Mueller cites a number of factors for why he ultimately didn’t recommend such a charge. They include:
* There was no underlying crime for which Trump was obstructing the investigation. While Mueller makes clear that there need not be an underlying crime for obstruction to occur, he acknowledges that the lack of proof of collusion makes the obstruction case a harder sell.
* Many of the President’s underlings – like, say Lewandowski and McGahn – didn’t actually carry out their boss’s orders. And so, there was no obstruction even if Trump had intended to do so.
* So much of what Trump did was in public that Mueller found it hard to conclude that the President was executing some sort of broad-scale attempt to obstruct justice.
* Many of the more high-profile moves by Trump – most notably firing FBI Director James Comey – were within his presidential powers.
Those reasons won’t satisfy Democrats, who will look at the laundry list of ways Mueller documents Trump seeking to meddle in the investigation and see clear proof of obstruction. But the bottom line is this: Mueller made no recommendation to Barr on obstruction – nor did he say he expected Barr to offer a judgment on whether or not Trump should be charged. Why did Barr – with Rosenstein – decide that Trump should be cleared of any wrongdoing in regard to obstruction? “That is our responsibility,” Barr said at his press conference Thursday morning.
Trump was VERY worried about the special counsel
For all his – and his aides’ – attempts to argue that everything was “very legal and very cool,” the President was boiling behind closed doors. According to the Mueller report:
“(W)hen Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’ The President became angry and lambasted the Attorney General for his decision to recuse from the investigation, stating, ‘How could you let this happen, Jeff?’”
It’s important to note here that Trump believed that history suggested that the formation of an independent or special counsel was the beginning of the end of getting anything done in a presidency. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything,” Trump is quoted as telling a handful of top aides, including Sessions. “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the President, denied the report’s account on Thursday afternoon, telling reporters: “I was very surprised to see that, because that was not the reaction of the President that day. I was there.”
The Mueller report won’t change Trump’s political future
There were some who believed that when Mueller’s report went public its findings would effectively doom Trump’s presidency. That isn’t going to happen and, in truth, even if the report had returned charges against, say, Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner, I’m not sure Trump’s most loyal supporters would be persuaded.
But that’s not what happened. Instead we got two top-line conclusions: 1) Neither Trump nor anyone in his campaign conspired with the Russian government in the 2016 election and 2) Trump will not be charged by the DOJ with obstructing the investigation.
Both of those conclusions are very good news for Trump. Period.
Yes, the details – as I documented above – of Trump’s conduct regarding the special counsel investigation are unsavory. And yes, if you went into reading the Mueller report convinced that Trump obstructed justice, you aren’t going to see anything in the report that will do anything other than convince you even more that he did so.
Remember this, however: The number of non-reporters who will read even half of the 300+ report is very, very small. Some people will skim. Others might read portions they are interested in. Most will read none of the actual report – choosing instead to follow news coverage and/or partisan reactions to it. All of which will reinforce the divided nature of our current politics.
The Mueller report neither exonerates Trump nor implicates him. And that sort of uncertainty gets eaten alive in our politics, ripped to pieces by partisans who tear off chunks that support their extant beliefs.
The next fight will be on obstruction – in Congress
While Mueller didn’t recommend Trump be charged with obstruction (and Barr expressly ruled it out) there’s a line in Mueller’s report that suggests the special counsel was making clear one way forward on all of this. Here it is:
“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
What Mueller and his team seem to be doing there is laying a predicate for future congressional action on the instances he documents in which Trump may have acted in an obstructive manner.
What Mueller is saying is that by his reading of the Constitution, Congress would be within its rights to take the conclusions from his investigation and pursue obstruction charges – presumably via impeachment proceedings – against Trump.
Whether the Democratic-led House takes the path very much remains to be seen. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has been skeptical about impeachment proceedings unless and until there was a bipartisan desire for them in the country. It’s hard to imagine that day coming anytime soon. And even if Democrats do try to pursue the obstruction angle, it seems very unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate would go along with any impeachment effort.