President Trump’s conduct in office has been diminishing the moral capital of the United States for more than two years. The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released Thursday puts a little of that capital back in the bank.
The message: Even under intense stress, the American system hasn’t buckled. A prosecutor appointed and overseen by Trump’s Justice Department is still capable of discovering the facts about this president. The FBI and intelligence agencies weathered a Mueller-documented campaign of presidential intimidation. The fact that a coolheaded Mueller didn’t call for legal prosecution, when half the country was calling for Trump’s scalp, in some ways affirms the integrity of the system.
Mueller, in effect, left the final judgments to Congress and the American public. His signature line on obstruction is ambiguous: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” I’m inclined to agree with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the matter is now best left to the voters in November 2020. Mueller has given the Democrats a rich menu.
Mueller’s report is a win for the slow tortoise of the truth. Trump has been tweeting for many months about the “hoax” of the investigation, and Attorney General William P. Barr continued his pro-Trump spin campaign 90 minutes before the report’s release. But now we have the facts.
The biggest surprise for me was the new evidence of Trump’s Russian connections and his attempts to precook policy toward Moscow, even though Mueller decided they didn’t add up to a conspiracy.
Among the new details:
Michael Flynn, who would later serve as national security adviser, was tasked by Trump during the campaign to discover damaging details about Hillary Clinton’s emails; following a secret January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between a Trump confidant and a Putin ally, a five-point plan was produced for easing pressure on Moscow; an Aug. 2, 2016, meeting between then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an alleged Russian intelligence contact named Konstantin Kilimnik yielded a plan for “backdoor” acceptance of Russian control of eastern Ukraine.
We also learned new details of Trump’s efforts to derail investigations: He instructed then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to write a memo claiming that Trump hadn’t told Flynn to discuss easing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016; McFarland refused. Trump told then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to deny reports that he had ignored Trump’s order to fire Mueller; McGahn refused. Small but memorable acts of conscience.
Why do these revelations matter, if the outcome of Mueller’s investigation, almost certainly, is to spare Trump from indictment or impeachment? It’s because they support the process of law and accountability, which is more fundamental than whether Trump stays or goes as president.
Congress may shy from impeachment; the public may even, inexplicably, decide that Trump deserves a second term. But the facts will be there for future historians — and for the millions around the world who have worried (or celebrated) that our system is cracking. We’re still here, Vladimir Putin.
The loss of U.S. moral authority in the world since Trump took office has done incalculable damage to the country. If the United States were a business, you would say its most valuable asset — a reputation built over two centuries as a nation based on moral values — has been squandered by Trump for short-term gain. If he were the chief executive of a public company, he would have been removed by shareholders long ago for breach of his fiduciary duty.
Watching Trump, the world has wondered whether the United States has lost its bearings. A prominent Asian analyst said to me two weeks ago in Cairo: “America is lost.” A European intelligence official said longtime allies were nearing the point of losing trust in the United States’ reliability. Even Putin, the Russian president, has joined in the schadenfreude, saying the United States is wracked by political crisis.
America’s friends are right to be worried by this president. But they should take some reassurance from Thursday’s Mueller report, with all its weird half-steps and unmade judgments. It affirmed that the fundamentals of accountability are still intact despite Trump’s best efforts to rig the system.