The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The rot of corruption begins with Trump. Mueller’s findings will only add to that story.

In 2019, The Post's editorial board argued the president tried to manipulate the justice system, wrongdoing that Congress must not let go. (Video: The Washington Post)
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If you boil it down to its essence, the two-year war we’ve been fighting over the Russia scandal has really been a fight over where the true rot of elite corruption in our political system can be found.

President Trump and his propagandists have spent those two years assailing the Russia probe in a manner designed to prop up the myth of his candidacy and presidency: that Trump represents the ultimate scourge of elite Washington corruption.

In this mythology, Trump was elected to drain the swamp of a corrupt elite conspiracy of globalists and plutocrats who rigged the economy against the “forgotten men and women" and gave away their jobs to undeserving immigrants; and who sent their children to die in faraway forever wars. Once in office, Trump determinedly set about draining that swamp; and that conspiracy of elites — the deep state, the media, the Democratic Party, and even some elements of the GOP — furiously responded by trying to overturn his election through illegitimate means.

When the redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report lands, Trump and his allies will immediately seize on it to further that narrative. (Update: The redacted Mueller report has been released. Read it here.)

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But that narrative of Trump’s ascension, and of the Mueller investigation, has always been a big lie. Whatever new information we glean from the redacted Mueller report, the enormous amount we’ve already learned about this story confirms the truth of the competing narrative: Though he is as much symptom as cause, the great rot of corruption emanates out from Trump himself.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks for publishing hacked Democratic emails. He has changed his tune with the arrest of Julian Assange. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

The Post has new details about what Mueller’s report will tell us, when it comes to Trump’s efforts to obstruct and derail the investigation:

The report — the general outlines of which the Justice Department has briefed the White House on — will reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the question of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and because some of his actions could be interpreted innocently, these people said. But it will offer a detailed blow-by-blow of the president’s alleged conduct — analyzing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the center of Mueller’s inquiry, they added.

As The Post notes, the report will offer “a granular look at the ways” in which Trump “was suspected of having obstructed justice."

We already know about many of the things that Trump did to derail the investigation, many of which were corrupt and constituted an assault on the rule of law. A good timeline of some of them is right here.

But White House officials are particularly worried about what else the report might reveal on that score:

White House officials are concerned about damaging testimony from a number of senior aides, particularly former counsel Donald McGahn and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, according to current and former officials. Their testimony, according to people with knowledge of it, gave a clear, detailed breakdown of some of the administration’s most controversial incidents, from the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director to attempts to oust [then-Attorney General Jeff] Sessions. McGahn spoke with the special counsel for dozens of hours, according to two people familiar with the matter.

There has long been mass confusion about what, precisely, Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation have been designed to conceal. What keeps getting lost is that this investigation wasn’t just about potential Trump campaign conspiracy with the Russian effort to sabotage our democracy on his behalf.

Rather, the investigation was also about — indeed, it was primarily about — establishing a full accounting of that Russian sabotage effort on its own terms, separate and apart from whether there was conspiracy with it.

This is what Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation have been designed in part to keep hidden from view.

This basic fact is a principal reason that Barr’s four-page letter summarizing Mueller’s findings was not even remotely exculpatory. While investigators were not able to prove a conspiracy, the letter confirmed two other points:

  • Mueller documented an extensive criminal Russian plot to tip the election to Trump, one that included massive cybertheft directed at the Democratic Party and extensive disinformation warfare designed to “sow social discord."
  • Mueller found that in trying to derail the investigation into that effort, Trump did in fact commit many acts that militated toward concluding criminal obstruction of justice occurred.

That’s what Barr’s letter confirmed by saying Mueller declined to reach a decision on obstruction while detailing evidence on “both sides” of whether it rose to criminality.

Thus, we know Trump engaged in multiple acts that skirted with criminality on their own terms, for the purpose of preventing a full accounting of the criminal foreign attack on our democracy that benefited him.

You can find this fundamental truth contained, as if suspended in amber, in a tension in Trump’s own tortured Russia rhetoric. Trump has relentlessly assailed the whole Russia story as a “hoax," by which Trump means both the conspiracy piece and the stand-alone fact of Russian interference. He has mostly denied the latter ever happened at all.

But Trump’s top campaign officials were, in fact, eager to conspire with the Russian effort, even if it didn’t amount to criminal conspiracy, something Trump himself lied to America about.

What’s more, the reporting has established that Trump doesn’t want the stand-alone story of Russian interference to be broadly understood, because he believes it detracts from the greatness of his victory. This has had consequences. It’s a key reason that Trump did not marshal a serious response to the prospect of more electoral sabotage in the future.

Thus, Trump prioritized protecting the mythos of his ascension from public awareness that his victory was partly enabled by a massive criminal scheme — over protecting our democracy.

At the same time, Trump has exploded the mythos of that ascension in other ways. He sold out on his vow to take on elite rigging of the economy, and his promised crackdown on immigration has produced nothing but mass cruelty, chaos and failure.

It is important to add here that thanks to the Mueller investigation and its spinoffs, we’ve also learned that Trump directed and reimbursed a criminal hush-money scheme to pay off women who alleged affairs to keep them quiet before the election, and that he kept up secret negotiations with Russia over a lucrative Moscow real estate deal throughout the primaries. Trump concealed both from the American people.

In all these ways, Trump’s ascension to the presidency was saturated in corruption and partly enabled by criminal schemes. And it is all of this that Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation were designed to keep from ever seeing the light of day.

Trumpworld’s attacks on the probe were all about preventing that whole story from coming to light, by repeatedly casting efforts to ferret it out as illegitimate. But every such claim — from the hyped FBI texts to the fake claims about the probe’s genesis to the lie that Democrats were the “real” colluders — has done nothing of the sort.

If The Post’s reporting is correct, the Mueller report will demonstrate why it was difficult to establish that Trump’s obstructive conduct was motivated by “corrupt intent.” This is notoriously difficult to establish, yet as Rick Hasen explains, the report might clarify that decision, but also place on the record new information that further illuminates Trump’s misconduct in this regard.

Bottom line: Even absent criminal charges against Trump, we already know just how corrupt his conduct has been throughout this whole affair. And Mueller’s findings cannot subtract from that story. They can only add to it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Barr’s redactions on the Mueller report don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt

Alexandra Petri: What Barr’s color-coding of the redacted Mueller report really means

Ann Telnaes: William Barr gives a performance Trump will love

Paul Waldman: Trump’s greatest fear: His underlings told Mueller the truth

Martin Lederman: Why there may be much less — and much more — to the Mueller report than people expect

David Ignatius: The Mueller report won’t fix the problem underlying it all