Reading the redacted report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Thursday felt like reading the story of a particularly clumsy mob boss. President Trump’s longtime former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is told: “The boss loves you.” “Everyone knows the boss has your back.” Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, gets the message: “Sit tight.” You will be “taken care of” as a result. Trump himself says of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort: Thank you for not flipping. You are so “very brave.”
Except that Trump doesn’t appear to have been anywhere near as effective as the fictional gangsters he resembles in Mueller’s work.
Perhaps one of the most striking takeaways from the report is the degree to which the president and those close to him tried their very best to coerce, coordinate and conspire — and ultimately break the law — but couldn’t quite succeed in doing so. Failure may be the key thing that has, at least for now, saved Trump and his immediate family members from indictment.
The report’s first part carefully details the Russian-directed efforts at “information warfare,” including a campaign to support Trump and denigrate Hillary Clinton on social media and the hacking and dissemination of Clinton campaign emails. As the report emphasizes, these appear to be the independent activities of Russian-based actors, engaged in their own geopolitical goals.
But the report also highlights all the ways the Trump campaign sought to benefit from that effort, albeit likely without realizing it was a Russian intelligence operation. When Donald Trump Jr. receives an email that the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” was offering dirt on the Clinton campaign as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” he acts with glee. Within minutes, he writes back, “If it’s what you say I love it.” He set up the meeting and announced a “lead” on negative Clinton information at a Trump campaign meeting.
The excitement sours only when it turned out that there was little dirt to be shared. A disappointed Trump son-in-law, Jared Kushner, calls the meeting a “waste of time,” a characterization later echoed in a statement by Trump Jr. The obvious implication: Had damaging information been shared, it would have been accepted — and used. Some of the key hurdles Mueller said prevented a possible a campaign-finance prosecution, including the difficulty of establishing the information’s value, likely would have been overcome as well.
The report is rife with other indications that various members of the Trump campaign and their associates seek to obtain Russian-held information about Clinton, none of which ultimately bore any fruit.
But it is with respect to obstruction of justice that Trump’s incompetence in getting what he wants really stands out — and it’s his inability to accomplish what he sets out to that ultimately protects him. Trump tries to put an end to the FBI investigation into and ultimate prosecution of Flynn. When various other efforts fail, he meets with then FBI-Director James B. Comey one-on-one, urging that Comey “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey (as we all know now) refuses. Trump tells his chief intelligence officers, including the director of national intelligence and director of the CIA, to publicly assert that there is no link between him and Russia. The intelligence officials refuse to do so.
Trump eventually fires Comey, thinking that will put an end to the investigation. But the Justice Department appoints Mueller as special counsel, and the Russia investigation continues. A panicked Trump tells aides, “This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.” He steps into high gear, trying multiple means of limiting, controlling and ultimately putting an end to Mueller’s investigation.
Just about every effort fails.
He tries to get Mueller dismissed for an alleged conflict of interest. But Justice Department ethics officials, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and White House Counsel Donald McGahn all disagree. The investigation continues.
Trump raises it up a notch, telling McGahn to order Mueller fired — effectively attempting a rerun of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the infamous evening in 1973 when then-special counsel Archibald Cox was fired at the behest of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate investigation. But like Elliott Richardson before him, McGahn refuses to carry out the order and threatens to resign instead. Unlike Nixon, Trump caves.
Trump’s orders that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions un-recuse himself from the Russia probe, step in and limit Mueller’s ambit. Sessions says no. Trump instructs aides to tell Sessions to deliver a prepackaged speech that will limit the scope of the special counsel to election meddling only. But the aides never pass on the request. Trump tells aides to demand that Sessions resign. Aides again avoid ever delivering the message. Sessions, the report says, eventually gets so fed up with Trump’s public belittling of him that he starts carrying a signed resignation letter with him to every meeting at the White House. (He was finally pushed out in November.)
Various attempts to cajole and intimidate key witnesses likewise fail. After a few months of lying for the president, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Cohen, flips and enters a plea deal, quickly shifting status from beloved loyalist to “rat.” Trump’s attacks on Cohen’s family — namely repeated suggestions that Cohen’s father-in-law and wife committed crimes — fail to change Cohen’s mind.
Flynn, too, eventually talks, ignoring the desperate urging that he continue to provide the White House a “heads up” about the prosecution. Numerous former campaign officials and associates talk to the special counsel, providing detailed information about the campaign and White House conversations that now make up the substance of the report.
A central piece of the story is how little Trump is and was able to control. Despite his very best efforts, key members of his team refused or avoided what were clearly unlawful orders. In so doing, they took critically important, even if limited and self-protective, steps to protect the integrity of the investigation and thus the rule of law. It is the one bright side of what has emerged.
But there are too many dark sides to count. We now have, thanks to the Mueller report, a detailed accounting of an attempted president-dictator. We have a president who sought to cover up and get all those around him to cover up campaign contacts with Russians; to cajole and then ultimately threaten witnesses into lying; to interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations; to run the executive branch like an arm of the mafia.
And we now have, in William P. Barr, an attorney general who is willing to spin the report with an advance news conference; to defend Trump’s obstructive actions and attempt on the grounds that he felt “frustrated and angry”; and to misrepresent Mueller’s reasons for not recommending an obstruction charge.
Contrary to Trump’s claim, this report is not an exoneration. And certainly not a total exoneration. Yes, Mueller concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge conspiracy with the Russians or campaign-finance violations. And he did not even attempt to reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice, thanks in significant part to the Justice Department’s long-standing conclusion that sitting presidents can’t be criminally prosecuted while in office. But he also could not have been more explicit that he was not clearing the president of wrongdoing: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it does not exonerate him.”
Mueller’s report tells a damning story of Trump’s efforts to use the power of the presidency to protect himself and his close family members. Had he been more effective, he would have shut down one of the most important inquiries into the threats posed to our democracy by a sophisticated foreign adversary. And then, maybe, he would have succeeded in getting himself impeached, or charged, or both.