With the congressional hearings featuring Robert S. Mueller III set to begin, it’s fitting that President Trump himself underscored the true stakes of what we’re about to witness, though he did so inadvertently, in a way he may not quite appreciate.
In a speech on Tuesday, Trump discussed the powers accorded him by Article II of the Constitution. Referencing the former special counsel’s investigation, Trump claimed:
Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President. But I don’t even talk about that because they did a report and there was no obstruction. After looking at it, our great Attorney General read it. He’s a total professional. He said, “There’s nothing here. There’s no obstruction.” So they referenced, “No obstruction.” So you have no collusion, no obstruction, and yet it goes on.
The first half of that is driving the coverage, but the second half is also important. Trump claimed Attorney General William P. Barr read the report and declared that it found “nothing,” meaning “no collusion” and “no obstruction.”
Note that Trump did not say here that the report itself found those things; he’s saying that his attorney general read it and reached this conclusion.
This is largely true, but not in the way Trump means it. Barr did read the report and reach a conclusion somewhat along those lines — by misrepresenting what it actually found.
In his summary of the report, Barr dishonestly took Mueller’s words out of context in a way that downplayed all the improper motives Mueller found for Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation, submerged the fact that Trump and his advisers eagerly expected to benefit from the Russian attack on our democracy, and dramatically minimized the meaning of Mueller’s refusal to exonerate Trump of criminal obstruction.
So Trump is sort of right: Barr did read the report and distort its conclusions to create the false impression that Mueller found “nothing.” It’s particularly telling that Trump openly expressed his gratitude to Barr for doing this.
Indeed, as you might recall, after Barr released this summary, Mueller himself wrote to the attorney general to protest that the latter’s misrepresentations had risked misleading the public.
Now that we’re hearing directly from Mueller himself, what’s at stake, at least in part, is whether the damning truth of what Mueller actually did find will be successfully drawn out before a national audience, or whether such obfuscations — the ones Trump himself referenced — will continue to obscure that truth.
Trump spews disinformation
Trump just raged on Twitter that the Mueller investigation was an “illegal and treasonous attack on our country” — a particularly remarkable lie, given that Trump tried to obstruct efforts to ferret out the truth about an actual attack on our democracy — and claimed that those obstructive acts were merely fighting back.
In other words, Trump’s obstruction was absolutely legitimate, and the real crime was the investigation itself. This disinformation is all about polluting the media environment, an effort to game the media coverage into putting a series of lies on an equal footing with the truth of what Mueller found, thus diluting the impact of the latter.
Republicans will try to do exactly this at the hearings. They will grill Mueller on a series of things about the investigation that have already been proved to be completely bogus — see this David Corn rundown of what’s to come — and one can only hope that Mueller effectively shuts down that disinformation effort.
Meanwhile, Timothy L. O’Brien suggests that Mueller also has an opening here to subtly unmask the bad faith and cynicism that Barr has brought to this whole process. Mueller might clarify, for instance, why he was so troubled by Barr’s summary of his findings.
Trump underscores the stakes
In declaring that he has “the right to do whatever I want as president” under Article II, Trump underscored the stakes of the Mueller hearings in another important way. In a sense, this claim actually was the Trump team’s legal argument: His lawyers declared that he had the power to shut down the investigation or pardon anyone associated with it simply by virtue of his position as head of the executive branch.
But Mueller’s report flatly rejected this legal theory, instead concluding that obstruction statutes do apply to a president. Mueller declined to bring charges due to Justice Department guidelines, while concluding that Trump did, in fact, commit a litany of obstructive acts. Importantly, in some of those cases, Mueller concluded that the crucial ingredient of corrupt intent was also present.
So Mueller’s report contradicted Trump’s claim that he can “do whatever I want” when it comes to obstructing investigations into himself, his family members and his advisers.
In so doing, Mueller’s report explicitly declared that beyond prosecution of a sitting president, there are other “constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” i.e., impeachment.
Given the deeply unfortunate Democratic reluctance to launch an impeachment inquiry, a congressional effort to determine whether impeachment is merited is unlikely to happen. So it might end up being in an unfortunate sense true, as Trump says, that “I have the right to do whatever I want” on obstruction.
But at a minimum, perhaps Mueller can convey to the American people that he concluded that the law should apply to presidents, that Trump did in fact engage in extensive corruption, misconduct and likely criminality — something Mueller can convey simply by reciting the damning facts of what he found — and that there are mechanisms of accountability, however unwilling Democrats might be to apply them.