A thought experiment: Suppose that on March 24 — the day Attorney General William P. Barr publicly summarized the Mueller report — all of the results of the special counsel’s probe that have dribbled out over the past two years had been revealed at once.
Americans would have discovered that a hostile foreign power had engaged in major intelligence operations designed to elect Donald Trump — something consistently denied by the president himself.
In this hypothetical, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would have simultaneously announced the indictment of 34 Russians and Americans — a network of espionage and corruption including hackers, Russian military officers and high-level operatives of the 2016 Trump campaign.
Suppose the report had revealed that 14 Trump associates had been in contact with Russian nationals, including the president’s son, who had met with Russian operatives in an attempt to gain information harmful to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Suppose it had been revealed that several Trump advisers and operatives had lied to the FBI and Congress in an attempt to conceal the extent of these contacts, and also that some of Trump’s closest advisers — including his campaign chairman — were guilty of conspiracy and fraud.
Suppose it had been revealed that Trump himself, while a Republican candidate, had continued to pursue a multimillion-dollar business deal to place a Trump Tower in Moscow. And that there was serious, though not conclusive, evidence that Trump obstructed justice during the Mueller investigation.
Yes, it would still be news that Mueller did not believe Trump and his campaign had directly coordinated with Russia, and that Trump himself would not be indicted for a crime. But that would be only part of the story — a story of corruption, criminality and coverup. The story of a presidential election that should have an asterisk explaining that the outcome may have been substantially influenced by a foreign power.
But all these disturbing facts did not come out at once. And Trump and his team provided a master class in controlling expectations. Trump consistently set out the standard of judgment he wished — “No collusion!” — in the knowledge that he was not personally guilty of collusion. And when this was (seemingly) confirmed by Mueller, Trump and his team declared unconditional victory.
This has led to an unusual circumstance. Trump supporters are doing a victory dance over the fact that he isn’t a Russian agent, just a Russian stooge. And Trump’s supporters are spiking the ball following an investigation that did not clear the president of obstruction charges. So it is still a legal judgment call whether the president is a crook.
Trump may not know much, but he knows lawsuits and legal proceedings. In this instance, he did not claim, “My staff has the highest ethical standards!” That would have been laughable. He did not say, “My first choice for national security adviser wasn’t a national security risk!” Because he was. Trump claimed, in essence, that he did not directly conspire with Russia to win an election. Then he cleared an ankle-high bar.
Though Trump and his team are savaging the media for its coverage of the scandal, the president is benefiting from its shallowness. Much news coverage is based on an electoral paradigm: Who won, and who lost? These events are more complex. Barr’s summary of the Mueller report is the most favorable interpretation Trump is likely to get. The report itself may be a catalogue of horrible judgment, unethical behavior and noncriminal corruption. It may put Trump Inc. in a very bad light. If and when it comes out in full. In the meantime, the Trump administration is defendant, judge and jury.
The full report, however, may require revised judgments from some of Trump’s critics, as well. Perhaps the president is not a foreign agent or a criminal mastermind. Perhaps he is a weak leader who surrounds himself with clowns and criminals. Perhaps his lack of character attracts and enables other corrupt men. Perhaps he is more pathetic than dictatorial, more fool than knave. Perhaps behind the compulsive, simplistic, narcissistic exterior, there is a compulsive, simplistic, narcissistic interior. Perhaps he has moved beyond good and evil, enforcing only one code: loyalty to his person. Integrity and competence be damned.
All this may not be criminal. But it mocks our country in a different way.