The Trump presidency long has been an exercise in normalizing extraordinary behavior, with President Trump repeatedly stretching the limits of what is considered appropriate conduct by the nation’s chief executive. The report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III puts into high relief the degree to which Trump has violated the norms.
The principal focus of the special counsel’s investigation was on questions of criminality. But there is more than the issue of what rises to the level of criminal conspiracy or criminal obstruction when judging a president and his administration. These are questions that go to the heart of what is acceptable or normal or advisable in a democracy. On that basis, the Mueller report provides a damning portrait of the president and those around him for actions taken during the 2016 campaign and while in office.
The 448-page document is replete with evidence of repeated lying by public officials and others (some of whom have been charged for that conduct), of the president urging advisers not to tell the truth, of the president seeking to shut down the investigation, of a Trump campaign hoping to benefit politically from Russian hacking and leaks of information damaging to its opponent, of a White House in chaos and operating under abnormal rules.
It shows a White House where officials sometimes — but not always — resisted the president’s more nefarious orders and concludes that Trump was not able to influence the investigation as much as he wished because advisers declined to carry out some of those orders. It also suggests, despite his many claims to the contrary, that the president felt vulnerable to an investigation. When informed just months after taking office that a special counsel was to be appointed, Trump exclaimed that it would mean “the end of my presidency.”
The legal findings in the report are important and significant. Mueller’s team found no criminal conspiracy on the part of Trump campaign associates in Russian efforts to sabotage the 2016 election. Attorney General William P. Barr concluded, based on his reading of the report, that there was insufficient evidence to charge the president with obstruction. The president, in tweets and public statements Thursday morning, embraced the findings as full exoneration. “Game Over,” said one tweet triumphantly.
Still, the investigation should be looked at in its broadest outlines, as one that was examining basic questions about political campaigns, political operatives, presidential candidates and presidents, along with the overriding issue of foreign interference in America’s democracy and the president’s reaction to it.
The Mueller report provided overwhelming evidence of how the Russians carried out their effort to interfere with the election. The details in the report buttress the earlier findings by the U.S. intelligence community of Russian meddling with the intent of helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. It is a finding the president has never fully embraced, repeatedly equivocating as to whether Russians were responsible, for reasons that remain unclear.
That’s just one of the elements that underscore the president’s departure from traditional rules. The number of contacts between associates of the Trump campaign and Russians connected with their government are anything but normal in presidential campaigns. The contacts were “numerous,” according to the report, though not conspiratorial. What should Americans make of that, even if it did not amount to criminal conspiracy?
The biggest questions about the president’s behavior involve the issue of obstruction. On this, Mueller and his team came to no conclusion, allowing Barr to make the most controversial judgment of the investigation, based on his reading of the evidence and the law and in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
Mueller’s report looks at episodes in which the president’s actions might be construed as an attempt to obstruct the investigation. Those include his conduct related to the firing of Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser; the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and subsequent appointment of a special counsel; the president’s efforts to remove the special counsel; efforts to prevent disclosure of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians; Trump’s efforts to force then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to deny that he had been ordered to fire Mueller.
Some of the episodes examined by Mueller’s team happened in plain view of the public. Much else took place behind the scenes, although any number of episodes were later revealed by news organizations. At the time those stories were published, the president often called them “fake news.” The Mueller report now documents them as accurate.
Barr said Thursday that he found that the evidence was insufficient to conclude that the president had engaged in criminal obstruction, largely because of offsetting circumstances. One major mitigating factor, he said, was that the White House had cooperated fully with the Mueller investigation, including allowing White House officials to be interviewed by investigators.
What Barr did not point out was that the president never agreed to be interviewed by investigators. Trump provided written answers to questions about Russia-related topics, but the report notes that he did not agree to offer written answers to questions about obstruction. Beyond that, Mueller and his team found some of the president’s written answers inadequate but chose not to pursue an interview in the interest of finishing the investigation in a timely way.
Barr also said that the president was justifiably angry and frustrated because he was being investigated for something he believed he had not done and that things he said or did should be weighed with that in mind. Trump, the attorney general said, was also irritated by all the public speculation and discussion about what might come of that investigation. Trump’s allies have often questioned whether someone can be guilty of obstruction of an investigation into a crime he or she did not commit.
Barr’s conclusion about obstruction was a judgment call that others are questioning. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) held a news conference to question Barr’s interpretation of Mueller’s conclusions about obstruction. House Democrats, who will forge ahead with their own inquiries, could put the obstruction line that Barr says the president did not legally cross in a different place.
The Mueller report represents findings in the most charged examination of a president since the investigations of Presidents Bill Clinton in 1998 and Richard Nixon in 1974. It provides the fullest accounting to date of a controversy that has raged since Trump was sworn into office, one that will continue for as long as he is in office. How much it will change things politically is a far different matter.
Long before the release of the report, the president had effectively politicized the Mueller investigation. For many of Trump’s loyalists, retribution is the next order of business. The president said, “This hoax . . . should never happen to another president.” His reelection campaign sent out an email Thursday headlined, “Time to Turn the Tables,” saying it was time “to investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation.”
Many Americans already have reached their own conclusions about the president, pro and con. They are likely to take from the Mueller report whatever they can find to reinforce those judgments. The legal findings have provided good news for the president, but he will still face the judgment from voters in November 2020 about what they want of and expect from a president. Russia might not be at the top of voters’ minds when they cast those ballots, but the Mueller report will stand as documentation of a presidency that is anything but normal or customary.