Attorney General William Barr, brand new to the job, had promised to release the Mueller report to the public, the report on whether President Trump had been a bad boy, and so he did, one month after he had received the report from Robert Mueller. Barr had already reported that Mueller had cleared Trump of absolutely everything and that was that. Of course no one but Donald Trump believed him – so Barr repeated that several times – this report cleared Donald Trump of every single thing. No one believed that either, but the day would come when he’d release the full report to Congress and to the American people, with light redactions of course. And the day came. Barr held his press conference. He said it again. Mueller cleared Trump of everything. And now people could see that. An hour later he released the report – on compact discs to Congress and then posted on the justice department’s website. And that really was that. It was over.
And then people read the report. William Barr had been bullshitting everyone and he had known it all along. Trump had been pleased, for almost a month. He hadn’t exploded. He hadn’t fired anyone, except for his Secretary of Homeland Security and most top officials in that department. Barr had kept Trump (relatively) calm for almost a month. America can thank him later. But the report ended that calm. Mueller had carefully and thoroughly documented the jerk in the White House. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa put that this way:
The moment President Trump learned two years ago that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russian election interference he declared in the Oval Office, “This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump nearly made that a self-fulfilling prophecy as he then plotted for months to thwart the probe, spawning a culture of corruption and deception inside the White House.
Trump’s advisers rarely challenged him and often willingly did his bidding, according to the special counsel’s report released Thursday. But in some cases, they refused when Trump pushed them to the brink of committing outright crimes.
Trump ordered Donald McGahn to instigate special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s firing, but the White House lawyer decided he would resign rather than follow through.
Trump urged Corey Lewandowski to ask then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail the investigation, but his former campaign manager only delivered the message to an intermediary.
And Trump demanded that Reince Priebus procure Sessions’ resignation, but the White House chief of staff did not carry out the directive.
The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia, insecurity and scheming – and of an inner circle gripped by fear of Trump’s spasms. Again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record.
And thus Trump was not innocent:
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
The report gives ten examples of what is clearly obstruction of justice, surrounded by lies. Mueller cannot clear Trump, but it’s not his job to do something about that. The DOJ rule is that no one there can indict a sitting president for any crime at all. Congress can impeach a president. That’s the only remedy. But something is amiss here:
The Mueller report revealed how a combustible president bred an atmosphere of chaos, dishonesty and malfeasance at the top echelons of government not seen since the Nixon administration.
Trump officials frequently were drawn into the president’s plans to craft false story lines. In one instance, while he was watching Fox News, Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to hold a news conference and claim that Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director based on Rosenstein’s recommendation. Rosenstein declined and told Trump that he would tell the truth – that firing Comey was not his idea – if he were asked about it.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attempted to buttress Trump’s cover story. She said at a news briefing that countless members of the FBI were seeking Comey’s removal, but she later admitted to Mueller’s team that her comment had been completely fabricated, calling it a “slip of the tongue” that was not founded on evidence.
In another example, Trump dictated to communications director Hope Hicks an intentionally misleading statement for the media about Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.
There are pages and pages and pages of this stuff in the report, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman open with this:
As President Trump met with advisers in the Oval Office in May 2017 to discuss replacements for the FBI director he had just fired, Attorney General Jeff Sessions slipped out of the room to take a call.
When he came back, he gave Mr. Trump bad news: Robert S. Mueller III had just been appointed as a special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and any actions by the president to impede it.
Mr. Trump slumped in his chair. “Oh, my God,” he said. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
It has not been the end of his presidency, but it has come to consume it. Although the resulting two-year investigation ended without charges against Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller’s report painted a damning portrait of a White House dominated by a president desperate to thwart the inquiry only to be restrained by aides equally desperate to thwart his orders.
The White House that emerges from more than 400 pages of Mr. Mueller’s report is a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty – defined by a president who lies to the public and his own staff, then tries to get his aides to lie for him. Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to fire lieutenants who did not carry out his wishes while they repeatedly threatened to resign rather than cross lines of propriety or law.
At one juncture after another, Mr. Trump made his troubles worse, giving in to anger and grievance and lashing out in ways that turned advisers into witnesses against him. He was saved from an accusation of obstruction of justice, the report makes clear, in part because aides saw danger and stopped him from following his own instincts.
No one listens to him. They humor him. They don’t do what he tells them to do and don’t tell him they haven’t done what he told them to do, and never will do what he asked – but he doesn’t have to know that. That works, and as for Russia:
The outreach had begun by August 2015, when Donald Trump was a newly announced presidential candidate in a crowded Republican field and a Russian news outlet emailed a top Trump aide to request an interview.
It persisted through the next 15 months of the 2016 campaign and into the presidential transition, when a Russian banker back-channeled a plan for reconciliation between the United States and the Kremlin to the new administration through a friend of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The portrait painted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his report released Thursday is one in which, again and again, Russian officials and business executives offered assistance to Trump and the people around him.
And that was fine:
The campaign was intrigued by the Russian overtures, Mueller found, which came at the same time that the Russian government was seeking to tilt the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor.
The special counsel did not find any of the contacts between Trump associates and Russians constituted a crime. Mueller said his “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
But the episodes detailed in his report show that Trump aides declined to forcefully reject the Russian offers or report them to law enforcement. Amid a growing awareness that Russia probably had hacked and disseminated Democratic emails, the campaign eagerly made use of the material – and its flirtation with Russian figures continued.
Team Trump and Team Putin had the same goals. They cooperated and had a fine time, but there was no formal agreement, with terms and conditions, signed and notarized and filed somewhere – so there was no crime. They were just walking down the road together, headed in the same direction, chatting. Jared handled the details. Ivanka made some money. But there was no conspiracy – just mutual interests.
On the other hand there were odd details:
Trump asked former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. Per the report, Trump “made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.”
One of the people Flynn contacted, Senate staffer Barbara Leeden, who was then working for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), reportedly said that “even if a single email was recovered and the providence [sic] of that email was a foreign service, it would be catastrophic to the Clinton campaign.”
Leeden claimed to have found a “trove” of Clinton’s emails from the “dark web” – but they proved inauthentic.
That’s was okay, the Russians came through, but Mueller did consider charging Donald Trump Jr. for his participation in the Trump Tower meeting:
“Taking into account the high burden to establish a culpable mental state in a campaign-finance prosecution and the difficulty in establishing the required valuation, the Office decided not to pursue criminal campaign-finance charges against Trump Jr. or other campaign officials for the events culminating in the June 9 meeting,” the report reads.
That just wasn’t worth the trouble, but this is curious:
Russia hacked and extracted voter data from the Illinois State Board of Elections, may have broken into a Florida county government and targeted private companies that help run elections.
In an alarming detail, the redacted report confirms that Russian hackers successfully broke into the Illinois State Board of Elections’ network and “extracted” the information of thousands of voters before the hack was detected.
The FBI believes – though the special counsel did not independently verify – that the hackers also got into a Florida county government’s database.
Outside the governments themselves, hackers targeted private companies involved in administering elections and providing voting technology.
That’s a bit alarming but this is a big yawn:
Trump Jr. gave a heads up about the Trump Tower meeting before it took place to a group of senior staffers and Trump family members. Former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates said that Trump Jr. announced the upcoming Trump Tower meeting during a meeting of senior campaign staff in 2016. The group included former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former communications director Hope Hicks and Trump family members Eric, Ivanka and Jared Kushner.
Hicks reportedly denied knowing about the meeting before 2017.
Yeah, well, they all deny everything, but Trump does plan a few things:
Trump started putting out feelers to dump Comey at the first sign of trouble when the FBI interviewed Flynn. In January 2017, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates talked to White House Counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s interview with the FBI, leaving him with the impression that the FBI did not yet have enough evidence to nab Flynn but that he was getting into hot water.
After McGahn conveyed the conversation to the President and explained the situation, Trump immediately started softening the ground to fire Comey. That night, at dinner with senior advisers, he started asking around for impressions of Comey, a classic Trump tick when he’s going cold on someone.
But he did have friends willing to bend the rules:
Senate Intel Committee Chairman Richard Burr gave the White House information about the FBI’s Russia probe. Burr confirmed to the White House Counsel’s Office that the FBI was investigating “4-5 targets” as part of the investigation into Russia’s election interference, and gave the lawyers status updates.
This is significant because McGahn’s chief of staff wrote in her notes that the President was “in panic/chaos” after Comey briefed the Gang of Eight on the investigation and was desperate for more information.
He got his information, but this is just odd:
Even after his lifetime of various legal troubles, Trump thinks “great lawyers” don’t take notes. In a more lighthearted aside, a conversation between Trump and McGahn suggests Trump has gotten some shoddy legal representation over the years.
Trump to McGahn: “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
McGahn said he did so because he is a “real lawyer”
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Trump replied. “He did not take notes.”
Okay, fine, but there was this too:
Trump dictated a statement to former Campaign Manager Cory Lewandowski for Sessions to deliver publicly that said Trump was being treated “very unfairly” by the special counsel’s investigation, and that would limit Mueller’s scope to future election interference only.
“But our POTUS is being treated very unfairly,” the dictated statement reads. “He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.”
“I am going to meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigation election meddling for future elections so that nothing can happen in future elections,” it concludes.
By this juncture, Trump was already hopping mad with Sessions for recusing himself and saw his attorney general as “weak.”
And of course nothing came of that. Lewandowski never contacted Sessions about that, and it seems Trump didn’t follow up – he’d moved on other matters. He was just venting.
That may be the real problem here, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick sees this:
What this report, released Thursday, does, irrefutably and in eye-scraping detail, is tell us what we already know. Some may find this frustrating – in many people’s eyes, Mueller went right up to the brink of finding serious criminal misconduct and then blinked, or punted, or declined to interview the president. But knowing, as he must have known, that anything short of a smoking gun, and perhaps even a smoking gun, would be met with cries of “no collusion” and “total exoneration,” Mueller took a slightly different approach. Rather than make specific recommendations of what comes next, he laid out the case and left it to Congress to do the work that he could not, for all sorts of constitutional and structural reasons, complete himself.
And Mueller’s efforts managed to do one important thing: They cement the story. They paint a picture. We now have the montage.
And this is not a pretty picture:
The quote that became the very first hot take of the day was that the president, upon learning that Mueller had been appointed to investigate, shouted, “I’m fucked.” He declared that his presidency was over. The reason this matters is that it cements in the collective consciousness what everyone already knew – that the president wanted this probe ended and knew it was an existential risk to his presidency. What follows in the rest of the report is a highlights reel of things even the most casual observer already knew, at some level, regardless of ideology or politics.
The Russians tried to steal the election. Some members of his campaign were happy to help. The president wanted to protect Michael Flynn. The president wanted to kill the special counsel investigation. The president materially and significantly tampered with witnesses to that investigation. The president lied and told others to lie.
And that’s that:
None of this was ever really in dispute. Almost everything about the president’s impetuousness and vindictiveness and malevolence was known, even before the election, because it’s been on full display, to all of us, for years. What Mueller has done is hold up a mirror to the presidency and shown us what was happening…
After two years without facts, we now have facts. Thus far the White House and Trump boosters haven’t disputed the facts. What they say is “no collusion,” because that’s what they were going to say, no matter what.
But the facts in this movie are devastating. They paint a picture of Trump campaign members helping Russia steal an election, with polling data and secret meetings, and of a lawless and King Lear-like Trump trying desperately to obscure what was really happening. Mueller may not have taken the American public anywhere specific on questions of law. But he sure as hell took us all to the same place on the question of reality. And the facts that the American public -at least those who don’t have an intravenous hookup to Tucker Carlson’s worldview – are seeing today, whether by way of quotes, or hot takes, or television punditry, is a walk down the well-trod lane of how Trump operates. He lies. He tells others to lie. He fires people. He threatens. He demands loyalty.
Of course he does all that, so Lithwick just goes with it:
In some ways, I’m enjoying this movie more this time around precisely because, as 448-page encapsulations of all the facts I thought I’d become insensible to go, this is a hell of a read. And in its own pointillist and nuanced way, that story makes the conclusions of law somewhat less frustrating. It’s as if Mueller was just saying, “You all know this happened and continues to happen. Now you decide what to do about it.”
And that may be the whole point:
Despite what Attorney General William Barr has asserted, Mueller makes it very clear that Congress is entitled to act on this report. But despite the heavy lawyering and the very lawyerly parsing, I actually read the Mueller report as a fundamentally political document, as much as a legal one. It’s delineation – chapter and verse – of how Trump has conducted himself in office, and for anyone who believes that the president should not be above the law, this is a damning report of presidential lawlessness. It’s lawlessness sometimes erased by staff, lawlessness sometimes declined by underlings, lawlessness sometimes erased by cluelessness and stupidity, lawlessness sometimes elided by technical definitions. But while Mueller may have avoided making explicit legal conclusions about criminality, he has sealed into amber a story that we all needed to hear.
And that means this:
Mueller has shown us what is true. Nobody in the White House has disputed it. We can decide we’re fine with it or that we are not fine with it. That’s a political question, not a legal one. I think that may be what needed to happen all along.
And that just happened. There are no more legal questions. The guy in the White House is kind of a jerk. Are we fine with that? If not, then what?