For nearly two years, President Trump and his partisans vilified special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as the leader of “13 angry Democrats” engaged in a “witch hunt” against the president. It shows how wrong they were that, after a summary of Mueller’s report was sent by Attorney General William P. Barr to Congress, Trump was able to proclaim: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
That isn’t accurate, but the fact that the president’s boasts are at all plausible is a tribute to Mueller’s work and, more broadly, that of the Justice Department and FBI. In the face of extraordinary and unprecedented vilification from the president, Mueller and his team kept their heads down, didn’t leak and managed to remain, from what we can tell, scrupulously fair and impartial. Mueller deserves the nation’s thanks — along with apologies from all those who smeared him for so long.
Mueller’s findings were hardly the complete vindication that the president claimed — but they were more of a vindication than many observers, including me, had expected. I was not surprised that there was no finding that the president had personally colluded with Russia; as I have been writing, it would be hard, if not impossible, to prove Trump’s personal culpability. More startling was that (in one of the few direct quotations from the Mueller report) “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Just a few weeks ago, Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had said there was “direct evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Much of that evidence had been provided by Mueller himself:
· Trump had been trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, and his attorney, Michael Cohen, had lied to Congress about this.
· Campaign chairman Paul Manafort had shared campaign polling data with a business associate linked to Russian intelligence.
· Trump friend Roger Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks, which was used by Russian intelligence to release stolen Democratic Party emails. Mueller’s prosecutors wrote that “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional release and what other damaging information Organization 1 [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” How is this not collusion? And, by the way, who directed these contacts with WikiLeaks? We still don’t know.
· Trump himself called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails (“Russia, if you’re listening”) on the very day when Russian intelligence hackers first tried to do so.
In the absence of the full Mueller report, we can speculate that the special counsel concluded that these contacts — and roughly 100 others — did not rise to the level of “conspiracy” or “coordination” with “the Russian government.” But if these communications were innocent, why did Trump and his aides lie about them so often, even risking perjury convictions to do so? And why did they fail to notify the FBI? Trump himself concocted the cover story that a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the campaign high command and Russian emissaries promising dirt on Hillary Clinton was about “adoptions.” We need a lot more information from Mueller’s report on all these Trump-Russia contacts.
So, too, we need to know much more about the claim by Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein that Trump’s actions to impede the Russia investigation do not constitute obstruction of justice. Mueller himself did not reach this conclusion after nearly two years of work; according to Barr, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” But Barr and Rosenstein took it upon themselves to exonerate Trump less than two days after receiving Mueller’s report — despite the glaring fact that Trump was never forced to testify under oath.
That the attorney general and his deputy rushed to exonerate Trump should not be surprising. Barr became attorney general in no small part because he had authored a memorandum preemptively absolving Trump of obstruction and Rosenstein himself was intimately involved in one of the key acts of alleged obstruction — Trump’s dismissal of James B. Comey as FBI director.
Congress needs to read the full Mueller report and hear from Mueller himself about why the special counsel thought it was such a close call as to whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr’s summary makes clear that not all of the reasons are yet public. There are myriad other details in the Mueller report that may prove more damning than the bland summary Barr issued, even if they don’t change the conclusions.
Trump has gotten a big and unexpected political boost from the end of the Mueller investigation. What he did not get was a clean bill of ethical health. Trump may not have “conspired” or “coordinated” with the Russian government, but he definitely welcomed its interference in the U.S. election (“I love WikiLeaks,”), lied to cover up the attack (“It could be Russia. … It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”), and did his utmost to stymie investigations of Russia’s actions. Trump infamously preferred the false denials of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the accurate assessment of the U.S. intelligence community.
This, of course, only scratches the surface of Trump wrongdoing. Don’t forget that Cohen is going to prison for hush money payments that, according to federal prosecutors in New York, were made “at the direction of” Trump. But if there is any punishment for Trump’s consistent advancement of his own interests above the United States’, it will almost certainly have to wait till November 2020.