Robert Mueller has left America with a question its political leaders would prefer to avoid.
What will citizens do about a presidency that may not be criminal, but is incessantly contemptuous of ethical and legal constraints, and may be the knowing product of an attack on the nation’s democracy by a hostile foreign power?
The special counsel’s redacted final report released Thursday is unlikely to drive Donald Trump from office in disgrace – and that may be the only thing the President really cares about.
“I’m having a good day!” Trump said, choosing to ignore an avalanche of devastating news coverage.
Republican politicians have proven willing to swallow whatever ills are in the report and continue to support Trump, leaving impeachment as a partisan endeavor – and one top Democrats seem likely to avoid. That means it’s up to 2020 voters to render a verdict on Trump’s fitness for office.
The report is indisputably bad for Trump all the same, and its depth and texture leaves his mantra of “no collusion, no obstruction” looking inadequate to face the enormity of the case.
Mueller’s depiction is of a President unfit for any traditional concept of his office – covering up, lying, dangling pardons, trampling constitutional norms and viewing his campaign as an “infomercial” for his businesses casts an indelible stain on his administration. And the report’s staggering account of Russia’s comprehensive social media and hacking effort to amplify political discord in America cannot help but raise new questions about the legitimacy of the 2016 election the President so cherishes.
Mueller also leaves Democrats in a difficult spot, now faced with an agonizing political choice on how to respond to a report that appears to demand further action in support of constitutional principles – even if they, and most voters, have little stomach for House impeachment hearings and would prefer to concentrate on an electoral remedy to Trump’s transgressions.
Realistically, Democrats may be unwilling to pay the price of an impeachment investigation in the knowledge that few GOP senators – cowed by the President’s fervent support from his base – will vote to convict.
“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second highest-ranking House Democrat, told CNN.
“Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment.”
Democrats are pledging to press on with their multiple investigations into Trump’s campaign, transition, presidency and business record – and the President faces significant challenges from criminal cases in New York and elsewhere.
But despite the shockwaves set off by the special counsel’s report, the political deadlock in Washington – that enshrines a nation split down the middle on Trump – likely means that only a new election can make sense of a presidential race stained by Russian malfeasance and a presidency that seems to know no limits.
Mueller’s top lines – that he did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling but failed to clear Trump of obstruction of justice – do appear to spare Trump from existential criminal and political threats. There is not one, single, outrageous moment that might crystallize his transgressions and make impeachment unavoidable – a process that would be sure to become a national nightmare – from any political perspective.
But Mueller’s conclusions only hint at the stunning look Mueller provides inside the 2016 presidential campaign and the fraught conditions of the West Wing of the White House.
The former FBI director effectively says in his 400-page report that though he cannot indict the President owing to Justice Department guidelines, there may be a case for Congress to adjudicate and effectively lays out an 11-point explanation for how the President may have obstructed justice. He even argues that his investigation was important to preserve evidence for any future prosecution once Trump has left office.n
And Mueller offers a possible reason for the cover up, apparently designed to get around Attorney General William Barr’s conclusion that there was no obstruction of justice since there was no underlying crime.
“The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns.”
Mueller paints a picture of a campaign team that, while not openly conspiring with Russians, fully expected to benefit from an operation by Moscow’s intelligence agencies. He writes about how Russian social media templates were eagerly tweeted by senior campaign staff, unaware they were effectively tools in an assault on American democracy.
Once Trump becomes President the picture becomes even darker.
Mueller’s character sketch is of a President in denial about Russian meddling, obsessed with any slurs on his election triumph and demanding subordinates lie to the public to keep damaging stories out of the press and even demanding the special counsel be fired.
As Mueller tells it, Trump may only have been saved from the prospect of impeachment because his aides – such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn, who Trump was ironically berating for failing to shield him – refused to carry out his wildest, and possibly illegal demands.
“You were supposed to protect me,” Trump tells Sessions in one encounter after the appointment of Mueller, which Trump said left him “fu**ed. “
Not ‘founded on anything’
The febrile atmosphere inside the White House is also revealed when Trump calls McGahn to demand he fire Mueller. The ex-White House counsel told Mueller’s team that he felt trapped, and drove himself to the White House to pack his bags because he felt the need to resign to avoid being forced to perpetrate a Watergate-style “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Mueller’s report also shatters the credibility of some Trump aides. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders for instance admitted to Mueller that her claim in an interview that rank-and-file FBI agents lost confidence in their Director James Comey before he was fired was “not founded on anything.”
The ideological divides of the Trump era are so entrenched that the report may have little immediate political effect. Republicans and Trump’s base will pick up the case made by Attorney General William Barr in an extraordinary press conference before the report was released in which he suggested may Trump may have been prompted to obstruct justice because he was frustrated by press reports about Russia.
Barr’s conduct also raises concerns. With his summary of the report last month delivered to Congress, and his on-camera appearance Thursday, the attorney general appears to have been determined to offer political cover to the President. His interpretation of the law regarding presidential obstruction also appears to differ significantly from Mueller’s that is laid out in an exhaustive legal argument in the report.
The discrepancy lends credence to claims that Barr, who wrote an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department faulting Mueller’s approach on obstruction, was doing exactly the job he was picked to do when Trump chose him as his new attorney general. The departure of Sessions and the assent of Barr may add up to a shrewd mastery of the Washington power game on the part of the President. But it also validates the picture of unrestrained constitutional meddling that Mueller depicts in his report.
Mueller does not answer every lingering question of his two-year investigation but his report is exhaustive and complex.
But he refutes the caricature of a “hoax” investigation led by “dirty cops” and partisan Democrats that Trump has tried to perpetuate for the last two years. In fact, Mueller goes out of his way to be fair to the President, his family and his campaign.
He, for instance, explains how the mountains of evidence of campaign contacts with Russians is not sufficient to charge crimes under conspiracy, foreign agent, or campaign finance laws. He considered a case against Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., but ultimately decided not to charge him because of the difficulty in establishing the value of information offered in a notorious Trump Tower meeting with a Russian delegation promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Mueller says that his team did not set out to build a definitive case that Trump obstructed justice since Trump as President could not be criminally charged and therefore would not have the right to defend himself at trial.
Not a witch hunt
The report also refutes Trump’s claim that the whole investigation was an elaborate “witch hunt.” From the meetings of Trump associates with Russians in Europe and the United States to the contacts between Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks, which released Clinton emails hacked by Russian intelligence, there appears ample reasons why alarms were triggered in the FBI.
One of the big questions all along was why did so many of Trump’s associates lie about their contacts with the Russians?
Mueller does not provide an answer though his findings show that people like foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn may have escaped without criminal records had they only told the truth about their contacts with Russian officials and emissaries.
The special counsel does appear to vindicate Comey, by finding there is “substantial” evidence to back up the former FBI director’s contemporaneous accounts of meetings with Trump in which the President asked him to go easy on Flynn and which he testified appeared to be an attempt to forge a relationship of patronage.
Initial reactions of Trump’s friends and foes were instructive when it comes to what may happen next in the new political landscape shaped by the report.
Typically, the Trump camp is declaring total and overwhelming victory and threatening vengeance, even in circumstances that raise devastating questions about the President’s behavior.
“Now the tables have turned, and it’s time to investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation into President Trump, motivated by political retribution and based on no evidence whatsoever,” said Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale.
The President appeared to interpret Mueller’s failure to accuse him of crimes as a vindication for the unchained, hard driving approach and attitude to expansive executive power that has made his presidency so controversial.
“I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!” Trump tweeted.