“The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches.” ~ Antonin Scalia
Everyone should have listened to Scalia. Robert Mueller wasn’t a wild-eyed radical leading a coup to overthrow the duly elected president, Donald Trump, and turn America Muslim and Mexican and gay, and black, and urban hip. He also wasn’t the man who would save America from a rogue president installed by Vladimir Putin to ruin everything. Robert Mueller’s job was to be methodical and boring. This wasn’t a crusade either for or against Donald Trump. There were legal questions. He answered those he could answer. He noted those he could not answer. There was no heroism or deviltry. There was this:
The investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III found no evidence that President Trump or any of his aides coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference, according to a summary of the special counsel’s key findings made public on Sunday by Attorney General William P. Barr.
Mr. Mueller, who spent nearly two years investigating Moscow’s determined effort to sabotage the last presidential election, found no conspiracy “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” Mr. Barr wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
There were offers to help. Those were neither overtly declined nor overtly accepted. There was no evidence, or not enough evidence, to prove anything, and there was this:
Mr. Mueller’s team drew no conclusions about whether Mr. Trump illegally obstructed justice, Mr. Barr said, so he made his own decision. The attorney general and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, determined that the special counsel’s investigators had insufficient evidence to establish that the president committed that offense.
He cautioned, however, that Mr. Mueller’s report states that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” on the obstruction of justice issue.
In short, Mueller couldn’t decide whether or not Trump committed a crime or two, but he couldn’t be sure he didn’t. He left that to Trump’s new attorney general. Barr said fine – let’s let that slide and that was that:
The president trumpeted the news almost immediately, even as he mischaracterized the special counsel’s findings. “It was a complete and total exoneration,” Mr. Trump told reporters in Florida before boarding Air Force One. “It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”
He added, “This was an illegal takedown that failed.”
What was illegal about any of this? Had this been an attempted coup by traitors, who should now be taken out back and shot? Trump wasn’t saying, but some people were unhappy:
Congressional Democrats demanded more, and the letter could be just the beginning of a lengthy constitutional battle between Congress and the Justice Department about whether Mr. Mueller’s full report will be made public. Democrats have also called for the attorney general to turn over all of the special counsel’s investigative files.
Mr. Barr’s letter said that his “goal and intent” was to release as much of the Mueller report as possible, but warned that some of the report was based on grand jury material that “by law cannot be made public.” Mr. Barr planned at a later date to send lawmakers the detailed summary of Mr. Mueller’s full report that the attorney general is required under law to deliver to Capitol Hill.
The later date might be 2078 or so, so this will not be pretty, given details like this:
Lawmakers on Sunday also criticized Mr. Barr’s conclusion that the president had not obstructed justice – which requires making a determination about whether Mr. Trump had “corrupt intent” when he took steps to impede the investigation at different turns – when the special counsel’s team never questioned the president in person.
That won’t do:
Shortly after the release of the Mueller findings, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter that he planned to call Mr. Barr to testify about what he said were “very concerning discrepancies and final decision making at the Justice Department.”
And the only thing to come of all this was this:
Ultimately, a half-dozen former Trump aides were indicted or convicted of crimes, most for conspiracy or lying to investigators. Twenty-five Russian intelligence operatives and experts in social media manipulation were charged last year in two extraordinarily detailed indictments released by the special counsel. The inquiry concluded without charging any Americans for conspiring with the Russian campaign.
Mueller did his boring job, but Charlie Sykes says no one will be bored now:
We still live in alternative realities. Even though the report is being greeted with triumphalist glee from Trumpworld and palpable disappointment from his critics, it will solidify us as a nation with two narratives: Trump will claim complete vindication, while critics will seize on the ambiguity about presidential obstruction of justice. Don’t expect the needle to move much, if at all.
And expect things to get hot:
Obstruction was always the greatest threat to Trump. Mueller’s pointed refusal to exonerate the president from a criminal charge – and an impeachable offense – now shifts the venue to Congress… The failure to indict is not a finding of innocence, and Congress need not apply the same standard to “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Department of Justice applied to the prospect of criminal prosecution.
Barr’s letter suggests that Mueller’s report lays out “evidence on both sides of the question.” That narrative will make for very interesting reading as Congress begins its own investigations. Many of his efforts to derail the investigation took place in broad daylight, including firing the FBI director and browbeating the attorney general. Did it also include dangling pardons? Implicitly threatening witnesses? What else might be included in the report?
Mueller wasn’t the savior that many of Trump’s critics wanted. His report ends nearly two years of fantasizing that Mueller would be a political-legal Deus ex Machina, who would save our political, cultural, and constitutional bacon. He didn’t, and it was unrealistic to expect that he would have.
So, once again, it’s up Congress and the American public to police the borders of acceptability. Democracy is going to have to save itself.
And there’s this:
Remember, we have only Barr’s summary, not the actual investigative report. Given the Trump-friendly conclusions of the report, there should be little opposition to releasing the whole thing, right? Only the report can fully answer the question of what happened with Russia’s attempt to influence our election. Congress still needs to answer some questions: “What happened? Who did what? And what does Congress want to do about it legislatively, if anything?”
This is going to be unpleasant:
The blowback against the Trump critics will be intense. You can already see it on social media, but Mueller’s finding of no collusion will have long-term consequences, especially for the media. As the New York Times’ Peter Baker noted, the release of the report will be a “reckoning for the President, to be sure, but also for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media, yes, for the system as a whole.”
Indeed it will be. Trump will use the report as cudgel to pound away at “fake news,” and cast doubt both on the media’s reporting and on the other ongoing investigations. His supporters will be emboldened and they are on a mission to discredit all of Trump’s critics. Whether you like it or not, Mueller’s report will give them fodder.
Still, Baker notes this:
Federal prosecutors in New York have already implicated the president in a scheme to violate campaign finance laws by arranging hush payments to keep two women from publicly discussing their claims to have had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump before the 2016 election, affairs he has denied.
Mr. Trump has also been accused of cheating on his taxes, violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause barring a president from taking money from foreign states, exaggerating his true wealth to obtain bank financing and other offenses. The sheer volume of allegations lodged against Mr. Trump and his circle defies historical parallel, possibly eclipsing, if they were all proved true, even Watergate, the nonpareil scandal of scandals.
Sykes – “But at least we are done waiting for Mueller.”
That’s so, and David Frum sees this:
Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.
This is what Donald Trump’s administration and its enablers in Congress and the media are already calling exoneration.
Frum says it is not that at all:
Russian President Vladimir Putin took an extreme risk by interfering in the 2016 election as he did. Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency – the most likely outcome – Russia would have been exposed to fierce retaliation by a powerful adversary. The prize of a Trump presidency must have glittered alluringly, indeed, to Putin and his associates.
Did they admire Trump’s anti-NATO, anti–European Union, anti-ally, pro–Bashar al-Assad, pro-Putin ideology?
Were they attracted by his contempt for the rule of law and dislike of democracy?
Did they hold compromising information about him, financial or otherwise?
Were there business dealings in the past, present, or future?
Or were they simply attracted by Trump’s general ignorance and incompetence, seeing him as a kind of wrecking ball to be smashed into the U.S. government and U.S. foreign policy?
Mueller did not address any of that, but someone should:
The Trump presidency from the start has presented a national-security challenge first, a challenge to U.S. public integrity next. But in this hyper-legalistic society, those vital inquiries got diverted early into a law-enforcement matter. That was always a mistake…
Now the job returns to the place it has always belonged and never should have left: Congress. This is all the more the case since the elections of 2018 restored independence to that body.
The 2016 election was altered by Putin’s intervention, and a finding that the Trump campaign only went along for the ride does not rehabilitate the democratic or patriotic legitimacy of the Trump presidency.
Trump remains a president rejected by more Americans than those who voted for him, who holds his job because a foreign power violated American laws and sovereignty. It’s up to Congress to deal with this threat to American self-rule.
So there is one question left:
Are Americans comfortable with this president in the White House, now that they know he broke no prosecutable criminal statutes on his way into high office?
David Corn is definitely not comfortable with that:
Trump proclaimed it was “complete and total exoneration.” And Trump champions popped the cork and declared case closed, nothing to see, end of story, no need for further investigation, Trump did no wrong.
Well, that is fake news.
Barr’s note is clear that Mueller did not uncover evidence that Trump and his gang were in direct cahoots with Russia’s covert operation to interfere with the US election and boost Trump’s odds. But the hyper-focus on this sort of collusion – as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee – has always diverted attention from a basic and important element of the scandal that was proven long before Mueller drafted his final report: Trump and his lieutenants interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin as it sought to subvert American democracy. They aided and abetted Moscow’s attempt to cover up its assault on the United States (which aimed to help Trump win the White House). And they lied about all this.
And, yes, there were instances of collusion – not on the specifics of the attack, but secret scheming between Trumpworld and Russia.
None of the evidence underlying this is in dispute.
After all, there was Trump Tower in Moscow:
Shortly after he leaped into the 2016 contest, Trump began pursuing a grand project in Moscow: a sky-high tower bearing his name. It could reap him hundreds of millions of dollars. His fixer, Michael Cohen, was the Trump Organization’s point man in the negotiations.
Trump signed a letter of intent, and the talks went on for months through the fall of 2015 and the first half of 2016. At one point, Cohen spoke to an official in Putin’s office, seeking help for the venture. And throughout this period, Trump the candidate, when asked for his opinions on Russia and Putin, issued curiously positive remarks about the thuggish and autocratic Russian leader…
The Moscow deal did fizzle at some point, but Trump had engaged in the most significant conflict of interest in modern American politics. He was making positive statements about Putin on the campaign trail, at the same time he needed support from the Russian government for his project. Yet he hid this conflict from American voters and lied to keep it secret.
And there was that meeting:
On June 9, 2016, Trump’s three most senior advisers – Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner – met with a Russian emissary in the Trump Tower in New York City. They had been informed that she would deliver them dirt on Hillary Clinton and that this was part of a secret Kremlin initiative to assist the Trump campaign.
The meeting, the Trump team has claimed, was a bust. There was no useful derogatory information. But by this point, the Russians had already stolen tens of thousands of emails and documents from Democratic targets and were, no doubt, pondering what to do with the swiped material. This meeting was another signal conveyed to Moscow: the Trump crew didn’t mind Russian meddling in the election and was even willing to covertly collaborate with Russia on dirty tricks.
Thus, Trump’s top men were encouraging a repressive regime to clandestinely intervene in American politics.
And there was the intelligence on Russian nastiness:
On October 7, 2016, the Obama administration released a statement declaring Moscow culpable for the cyber-attacks on the Democrats. An hour or so later, the Access Hollywood video of Trump boasting of sexually assaulting women appeared. And shortly after that, WikiLeaks began releasing the personal emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta that were stolen by Russian operatives. For weeks, WikiLeaks dumped a new tranche of Podesta emails on practically a daily basis and hobbled the Clinton campaign in the final stretch of the race.
Despite this attack and the official Obama announcement, Trump stuck to his false line: the Russians should not be held accountable. An overseas foe was striving mightily to undermine a US election. Trump had been told this privately by US intelligence, and the US government had issued a public declaration. Yet Trump echoed and amplified Moscow’s denials. He was siding with the enemy.
A candidate seeking the job of defending the United States was facilitating an attack on the nation. And after winning the White House, Trump would keep on protecting Putin by dismissing Russian involvement and the significance of the attack.
There was a lot of misdirection here:
By asserting that the issue is only whether or not he directly colluded with the Kremlin plot, Trump has diverted attention from the fact that he facilitated an assault on his own country. That may or may not have been illegal. But it was betrayal. It was treachery.
That was not Mueller’s remit here, but that doesn’t matter:
Mueller’s job was to seek out possible crimes to prosecute. It was not to evaluate actions that did not rise to the level of criminality. Nor was it his charge to tell the public the whole truth – yet so much of the truth is already out there. And the bottom line was established before Mueller submitted his report: Trump committed what is probably the most significant political misdeed in American history.
The public did not need the Mueller report to confirm this.
Perhaps so, but the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher sees only Chaos ahead:
Next, more of the same, but with more entrenched division, a bitter crossfire of allegations and then, finally, a reckoning in the form of the 2020 presidential election.
The long-awaited conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is likely to harden congressional Republicans’ wall of support for President Trump, strengthen Democratic demands to hold Trump to account – and result in little change in public opinion.
Fisher asked around about that:
“It may well be that a good portion of the Republican base will continue to see this as a witch hunt,” said David Greenberg, a historian of the presidency at Rutgers University. “In the past, in Watergate and in Iran-contra, some Republicans have been willing to break with their president, but now we’re just in a different cultural moment in terms of partisan and ideological rigidity and a right-wing media that keeps the party united behind Trump.”
A second view:
“There’s no middle on this” divide on Trump, said Craig Shirley, a biographer of the late president Ronald Reagan and a former Republican political consultant. “The report is going to deepen the pain and the antagonism. Even in the first 48 hours after the report was filed, when nobody knew anything, we saw both sides creating their own narrative and conclusions. For now, the party will continue to stand by Trump because of loyalty, fear and political reality.”
A third view:
The Democratic leaders in Congress, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), in a joint statement, shifted the spotlight from the bottom-line finding of no collusion to a call for more transparency and the release of the full Mueller report. “The American people have a right to know,” they said.
But wait, there’s more:
The investigations into Trump’s acts both as a candidate and as president will now move into a more freewheeling phase, as multiple congressional committees and federal prosecutors’ offices look into a vast constellation of alleged misdeeds, including Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. election, Trump’s finances, his inaugural committee’s fundraising, his family foundation, his business operations after he assumed office and his alleged marital infidelities and payoffs related to them.
Mueller finished his narrow plodding and careful work, the boring stuff, and now anything goes:
Past presidential scandals tended to be either personal, such as Clinton’s White House infidelities with Monica Lewinsky, or political, such as Nixon’s campaign of dirty tricks and efforts to obstruct investigations. But the array of allegations against Trump spans from intimately private behavior to official actions in office, and there is as yet little sign of Trump’s critics and investigators narrowing their focus.
“There’s often a blurring of personal, old-fashioned corruption and more serious abuses of executive power in these investigations,” Greenberg said. “In Watergate, investigators eventually chose not to make the bombing in Cambodia or Nixon cheating on his tax returns part of an impeachment,” focusing instead on the core issue of crimes Nixon may have committed in his reelection campaign.
“With Trump,” Greenberg said, “there are several things going on at once – the money, the sex and Russia. Democrats in Congress will have to decide what they want to look into and what impact that choice may have on public opinion.”
They should choose carefully. Mueller took care of the basics. The president did not conspire or collude with the bad guys. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation – so he’s in the clear. But he isn’t, really – there’s just too much else. Democrats in Congress have to decide what to do about all of that. Mueller took the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of the “Russia thing” – making it boring, as a good lawyer should. But now the “fun” begins.
That may be the wrong word.