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Opinion The Mueller report is the opposite of exoneration

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)

THE REPORT of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is not what the American public had been led to expect. As Attorney General William P. Barr said last month, the special counsel found little evidence of a coordinated plot between Russia and the Trump campaign to swing the 2016 election. But Mr. Mueller told a very different story about whether President Trump obstructed justice than the one Mr. Barr gave the country in his summary of the special counsel’s report. In fact, Mr. Mueller compiled a damning account of Mr. Trump’s lies, behind-the-scenes manipulations and attempts at coercion while Justice Department officials were properly investigating Russia’s election-year activities and Mr. Trump’s own possible obstruction.

Mr. Mueller made clear that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race in “sweeping and systematic fashion,” which Mr. Trump has denied; that the interference was designed to help Mr. Trump; and that the Trump campaign was happy to accept the help, which is morally repulsive.

Read the full, redacted Mueller report

Even so, Mr. Mueller’s account of the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia contains no evidence of substantial cooperation. Contacts between figures on the fringe of Mr. Trump’s circle, such as sometime foreign policy advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, with equally sketchy Russian characters may have revealed Moscow’s interest in helping the Trump campaign, but they apparently led nowhere.

The infamous June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian delegation and Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, was, as Mr. Kushner put it, a “waste of time.” It is telling that the Trump team took the meeting because the Russians were promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, but the Russians’ real agenda was to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, a law mandating sanctions for human rights crimes.

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Nor did the investigation find evidence that Mr. Trump approved, or even knew about, questionable pre-inauguration contacts between soon-to-be national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, during which Mr. Flynn urged moderation by the Kremlin in responding to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. Mr. Mueller did indeed compile evidence that Mr. Trump attempted to derail prosecution of Mr. Flynn for lying about his conduct, and that he tried to suppress evidence about the Trump Tower meeting; but underlying wrongdoing by Mr. Trump was not the motivation for these attempts.

George Conway: Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him

Congressional Democrats must decide what, if anything, to do with Mueller’s evidence against President Trump, which detailed potential obstruction of justice. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The report does establish collaboration between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, on the one hand, and between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence on the other. Russia’s military intelligence agency supplied WikiLeaks with stolen Democratic Party documents and emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta; the Trump campaign, in turn, heavily promoted the material and allegedly sought to learn from WikiLeaks when more would be released.

Some of the most substantial of Mr. Barr’s redactions appear to cover activity undertaken by Trump associate Roger Stone in acting as an unofficial liaison between the campaign and WikiLeaks, which was covered in a separate indictment of Mr. Stone in January. But the unredacted portions of the report do not clearly show that WikiLeaks knew it was being used by Russian intelligence, nor that the Trump campaign coordinated directly with the Russians about the leaks.

Yet Mr. Mueller argues that the absence of clear evidence of illegal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign does not mean that the president must be innocent of obstructing justice. In his summary of the special counsel’s findings last month, Mr. Barr said Mr. Mueller declined to make a call on the president’s behavior, then explained that there was too little evidence to conclude Mr. Trump committed a crime. Mr. Barr’s account has now been shown to be highly misleading.

No matter his findings, we now learn, the special counsel was never going to declare Mr. Trump guilty. Mr. Mueller’s report stated that, from the very start, “we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.” That is because Justice Department guidelines bar prosecuting a sitting president, Mr. Mueller explained, and it would be unfair to charge someone who had no chance to win exoneration in court.

But Mr. Mueller did everything short of leveling an accusation. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report read. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

Mr. Mueller described many disturbing incidents, mapping out how each could constitute obstruction of justice. Some were previously known but are bolstered in the report by sworn testimony and new detail; others are newly disclosed. When Mr. Trump pressured then-FBI Director James B. Comey to go easy on Mr. Flynn, he knew the FBI was involved, he knew he was not supposed to meet alone with the FBI director, he sent advisers out of the room in a manner suggesting he understood the request was improper, and it is clear he thought wrapping up the controversy surrounding Mr. Flynn would end “the whole Russia thing.”

When Mr. Trump twice told then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller — “Mueller has to go”; “you gotta do this” — he knew he was under investigation, he knew there was no rational basis for removing the special counsel, and he had been told he should not be discussing the matter with Mr. McGahn. He later sought to have Mr. McGahn deny that Mr. Trump had ever told him to fire Mr. Mueller. The story is similar when Mr. Trump tried to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the investigation into Mr. Trump and his campaign, an act “intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President’s and his campaign’s conduct,” Mr. Mueller found.

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How could there be obstruction of justice even if there was little evidence to support the underlying suspicion of Trump campaign coordination with Russia? First, Mr. Mueller argued, “Obstruction of justice can be motivated by a desire to protect non-criminal personal interests, to protect against investigations where underlying criminal liability falls into a gray area, or to avoid personal embarrassment. The injury to the integrity of the justice system is the same regardless of whether a person committed an underlying wrong.”

More specifically, “The President had a motive to put the FBI’s Russia investigation behind him,” Mr. Mueller wrote. “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.”

Second, once he knew he was under scrutiny for possibly interfering with a legitimate law enforcement inquiry, Mr. Trump had further motive to derail the probe. At that point, Mr. Trump engaged in “public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate.” Mr. Mueller noted that “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.”

From here, the House Judiciary Committee must hear directly from Mr. Mueller. Lawmakers should insist on reading the entire report, including substantial sections that have been redacted from public view. Then they may face a difficult balancing act between the many valid reasons to regard impeachment as a last resort, and their responsibility to ensure that no one is above the law.

Read more:

Harry Litman: The most important day in the Mueller probe was deeply upsetting

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: The Mueller report leaves little doubt: Trump obstructed justice

Gary Abernathy: The Mueller report is out. The other shoe may drop soon.

Erik Wemple: The Mueller report nails Sarah Sanders on an extravagant fabrication

Alexandra Petri: My book report on ‘The Mueller Report’

Eugene Robinson: Only Congress can hold Trump accountable now

Max Boot: The Mueller report reads like an impeachment referral