After having spent hours reading the redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, I can see why President Trump was so eager to discredit the investigators — and why Attorney General William P. Barr, who has revealed himself to be a Trump toady, felt compelled to convene a news conference to spin the results in advance. And it’s not because the report proves, as Trump tweeted, “No Collusion - No Obstruction!” It’s because the report proves the very opposite.
The best news for Trump, already previewed by Barr, is that Mueller concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge the president or his aides with criminally conspiring with Russia in “its election interference activities.” This, however, does not absolve the campaign of “collusion” — a nonlegal term outside the scope of Mueller’s inquiries.
Mueller uncovered “numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.” He also found a commonality of purpose between the campaign and the Kremlin: “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.” Not only did Trump publicly ask the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, Mueller writes, but also “by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.” Trump even told his deputy campaign manager “that more releases of damaging information would be coming” — but he didn’t tell the FBI. In short, Trump acted unpatriotically, if not illegally, by eagerly accept Russian help to win.
The news gets far worse for Trump in the second volume of the report, concerning obstruction of justice. Mueller methodically lists 10 incidents of possibly obstructive behavior by the president, from firing FBI Director James B. Comey to dangling pardons before Trump’s former aides. The report then analyzes each incident to determine whether it meets the three-part test for obstruction of justice: Was there “an obstructive act,” “a nexus between the obstructive act and an official proceeding,” and “corrupt intent”? And time after time Mueller finds that the answer is yes — Trump’s conduct met all three standards.
Mueller reveals fresh evidence of obstruction, mainly involving former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who spent some 30 hours testifying. He provided details of how Trump tried to pressure him into firing the special counsel and then asked him to lie about having done so. Mueller also shows that Trump was not just asking in public for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself; he also did so privately on numerous occasions, with a mixture of threats and blandishments, in the apparent hope that Sessions would protect him from the special counsel.
Mueller then systematically demolishes Trump’s defenses, one by one. Trump, for instance, has denied asking Comey for his personal loyalty and for an end to the investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn. Mueller sides with Comey, writing that “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.” To cite but one instance: “While the President said he ‘hope[d]’ Comey could ‘let Flynn go,’ rather than affirmatively directing him to do so, the circumstances of the conversation show that the President was asking Comey to close the FBI’s investigation into Flynn.”
Mueller concludes: “Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations. … The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” Mueller then proceeds to deconstruct, through careful legal analysis, the far-fetched claim put forward by Trump’s lawyers (and endorsed by Barr!) that “the President cannot obstruct justice by exercising his constitutional authority to close Department of Justice investigations or terminate the FBI Director.”
The Mueller report conveys a strong sense that if Trump were attorney general rather than president, he would already have been indicted on a charge of obstruction of justice. But the Justice Department insists that a president can’t be criminally charged, and for that reason, Mueller refused to broach the possibility even in internal memorandums. He did add, however, that “we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
This is practically an invitation for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is right to be reluctant, because not even the damning evidence compiled by Mueller is likely to shake the support Trump enjoys among the Fifth Avenue Republicans. Sadly, this is one coverup that may work — at least in the sense of protecting Trump from any judgment before Nov. 3, 2020.