During the highly divisive debate over the past two years to which the Department of Justice investigation into presidential abuse of power, obstruction of justice and conspiracy with a hostile foreign power has given rise, moderates on both sides have cautioned their more radical peers to stop trying to second-guess Special Counsel Robert Mueller and wait for his report. Wait, we have, but the release of the report this week holds out no promise of an end to the discussion. On the contrary, it opens up new questions on which defenders of the two juxtaposed positions regarding the latest US administration are bound to bitterly clash.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Donald Trump in May of 2017 that prosecutor Robert Mueller was being appointed by the DOJ to look into allegations of obstruction and collusion, the president is reported to have said, “This is terrible. This is the end my presidency. I’m fucked!” The best one could surmise about such statements is that the president might have been unwarrantedly paranoid about the legal process within the US justice system—considering his unfamiliarity with the Constitution, Federal law or the truth. But it would appear, rather, that Trump was genuinely worried about how exposed he was to such an investigation because there really was a “there there” under these headings.
The 400-page Mueller report indeed confirms a “there there”, despite Attorney General William Barr’s best efforts to downplay it, to the chagrin of Republicans and Democrats alike. The Republicans, because it implies that the Mueller Report is not an end to a controversy, but just the beginning. The Democrats, because Special Counsel Mueller has effectively punted to them, and how they receive the ball and run with it is likely, one way or another, to affect their performance in the 2020 elections.
I received the report through a friend in New York while it was still hot off the press and have galloped through it since then. I’m a slow and careful reader, so I’m sure that I’ll have more to say on this investigation in the future. But my first look has led me to certain concrete preliminary conclusions that, for what they’re worth, I am sharing below. But one of the main ones is that no matter how carefully the investigation was carried out or how many truths it has uncovered, the GOP is bound, by and large, to continue to contend that it isn’t what you know but what you can prove (or that it’s all about the privileges the office of the president provides), while Democrats will argue that the report reveals exactly what they expected it to reveal and that if the president isn’t indicted it’s only because, under the law, he can’t be.
Here are a few other first impressions I’ve formed in scanning the redacted Mueller Report:
- The US media, which the president and his base have gone out of their way to insult and try to discredit, have done their job admirably with regard to the misdeeds of the Trump administration and of the president himself. My main reason for arriving at this conclusion is that little if any of the special counsel’s report comes as a surprise to anyone who has been closely following the mainstream news. Papers like the The New York Times and The Washington Post have done a particularly good job of reporting over the past couple of years, as have magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and news sites such as Politico and The Daily Beast, among others.
- The Mueller Report is not the end of anything, but the beginning. In one passage of the report the special counsel practically extends an invitation to Congress to investigate further and possibly impeach the president. According to legal experts making statements to the media the day after the report’s release, there appear to be more than a dozen potential prosecutions arising from the report. And Mueller has alerted other departments and agencies to them.
- Since receiving the Mueller Report, Attorney General William Barr has sought to mislead the country about its contents. In his four-page preliminary summary of the report and in the press conference that he held on its release, he carefully trimmed his conclusions to leave out “the bad stuff” and to concentrate on vindication for the president. He even went as far as to give his own opinion with regard to the “obstruction and collusion” issues, with an eye toward prejudicing the GOP base in full favor of Trump and toward undermining the morale of Democrats and some Republicans who were hoping for conclusive evidence of both things. Barr’s ministrations on behalf of Trump were inconsistent, we now know, with the contents of the report.
In this sense, and combined with his unfounded allegations of deep-state “spying” on the 2016 Trump campaign, Barr is showing himself to be precisely what skeptics thought him to be when he took over from former AG Jeff Sessions: a Trump “hired gun”, a legal eagle with clear partiality and at the personal service of Donald Trump, not a true attorney general serving the interests of the people of the United States as a whole. Those who thought Barr was “a straight-shooter” or an impartial purveyor of balanced justice will be disappointed. But those of us who were aware of his past actions in government know that his specialty is obfuscation.
Indeed, it was Barr (along with other colleagues), who was one of those called in as a “cleaner” during investigation of the Iran-Contra affair under the administration of George H.W. Bush. Those investigations were being handled by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Walsh, like Mueller, was a Republican who had earned a well-deserved reputation for professionalism. The job for which Barr and his associates were brought in was the effective short-circuiting of that probe into “conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan administration officials,” which included by then President Bush. And they did their job well, conjuring up ways to suppress evidence, and thus shield top officials like Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger—co-defendant along with six others in the investigation— and, indeed, Presidents Reagan and Bush. Bush would eventually issue highly controversial pardons to the seven defendants, thus effectively halting Walsh’s probe and the legal jeopardy to which he and Reagan were exposed in its tracks.
- The Mueller report could not establish that the Trump electoral campaign directly colluded with the Russian government to subvert the 2016 presidential elections so as to swing them in favor of Trump. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The report indicates that the Russians repeatedly reached out to the Trump campaign and that campaign officials including Trump’s son, Don Jr., did indeed show interest in the Russian overtures. This in itself is at least ethically questionable behavior, since a more politically savvy and democratically honest team would have immediately made the candidate aware of what was going on and urged him to go to the FBI to let the agency know that Russian intelligence was seeking to influence the outcome of the election. The report indicated that Don Jr. wasn’t charged for his role in seeking Russian contacts because his testimony demonstrated that he truly wasn’t aware that what he was seeking to do might be a felony. In other words, we can infer from this that Trump’s son was deemed too stupid and ignorant to be charged.
Furthermore, despite the president’s insistence that he was “joking” when, during a campaign rally, he said, referring to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Internet server while she was secretary of state, “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find 30,000 emails that are missing,” the report indicates that it wasn’t more than five hours until Russian agents were at work seeking to hack their way into the computers of Hillary Clinton and, eventually, the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
- There was indeed, according to the report, Russian intervention in the 2016 elections. It led to the Mueller team’s indictment of a dozen Russian military intelligence agents. Collusion or no, this is a topic of grave concern to the country’s security, and one that is getting way too little attention, mainly because if the president admits that Russian intervention in US domestic affairs is a major problem that requires immediate action, it will be a tacit admission that his performance in the popular vote, which he lost by nearly three million votes, may have been even worse than at first believed.
- The Mueller Report does not say, as the president and AG Barr have sought to convince the public, that there was no obstruction and/or attempted obstruction of justice on the part of Trump. It merely says that Department of Justice guidelines dictate that no sitting president can be indicted. If not, independent legal experts indicate, there are at least eleven examples of attempted obstruction with which Trump could be charged. And former federal prosecutor and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told CNN that under federal law, attempted obstruction is the same as obstruction because it indicates a willingness to subvert and influence the outcome of legal proceedings.
- Which brings me to a bottom-line conclusion of the report: namely, that, thanks to the adults in the room among Trump’s team and the GOP, the system worked to keep the president somewhat more in check than he otherwise would have been, particularly as regards obstruction of justice. What can be inferred from Mueller’s report is that collusion was avoided and obstruction contained because a number of Trump team members disobeyed Trump’s orders. In other words, they saved Trump from himself, and in the process, preserved the rule of law. The highest-profile case of this was seen in testimony by former White House Counsel Don McGahn whose lengthy presentation before investigators provided major insight into a paranoid and dysfunctional administration in which he consistently stood up to the president to keep him from breaking the law or getting others to do so.
The importance of McGahn’s testimony before the Mueller investigation team is clear from the fact that the president is now railing against the former White House counsel, saying that McGahn painted a distorted picture of the Trump administration. It is more likely, however, because McGahn was right on the money that he is now a target of the president’s rage. As an unnamed White House source told The Washington Post, “If anything, Don (McGahn) saved this presidency from the president. If Don had actually gone through with what the president wanted, you would have had a constitutional crisis. The president’s ego is hurt, but he’s still here.”