There are many ways to understand special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-anticipated report.
It confirms, for anyone left doubting, that Russia did indeed meddle in the 2016 election. It did not find evidence showing that President Donald Trump and his associates engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Russia in their meddling. And it suggests reasonable legal minds can differ on whether the president could be indicted over obstructing that investigation.
Most of all it paints a picture of a president woefully out of his depth in his first months on the job. Far from being devious, Mueller portrays Trump as a bumbling bully, cajoling and pressuring his underlings to no avail.
He asks his deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, to draft a statement saying he did not order Michael Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador. He orders White House counsel Don McGahn to shut down Mueller’s investigation.
When a competent and corrupt boss urges subordinates to cross ethical or legal lines, they comply, sealing a corrupt bond. For Trump though, the subordinates declined, demurred or flat out refused. McGahn threatened to resign, and Trump backed down. Lewandowski fobbed off his errand to an underling, who ended up ignoring the order. McFarland made it known that she felt uncomfortable drafting a statement she didn’t know to be true.
All of this is relevant to the open questions raised but not answered by Mueller’s report regarding obstruction of justice. Mueller details 10 incidents that may have risen to the level of obstruction, but makes no judgment on the president’s culpability. He is neither indicted nor exonerated.
This obscures the central fact that all of Trump’s attempts to influence the Russia investigation backfired. He dictates a false press release on the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer and his senior campaign team. Then the New York Times publishes the actual emails promising dirt on Hillary Clinton to set up that ill-fated meeting.
Trump fires FBI director James Comey expecting to take the pressure of the Russia investigation off of himself. The president ends up setting into motion the events that lead deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as special counsel. Comey himself testified under oath in 2017 that, after his firing, he leaked his personal memos detailing his awkward conversations with Trump in the hopes that it would prompt a special counsel investigation.
Much of this comes down to Trump’s decision, shortly after taking office, to retain and try to influence the FBI director he had inherited from the Obama administration. In this case, Trump ignored most of his senior advisers. According to Mueller’s report, at a dinner with Trump and senior advisers on Jan. 26, 2017, the president asked the room what they made of the FBI director. According to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, “no one openly advocated terminating Comey, but the consensus on him was not positive.”
Coats however had a different view. According to the report, he thought Comey was a “good director.” He encouraged Trump to “meet Comey face-to-face and spend time with him before making a decision about whether to retain him.”
This turned out to be terrible advice for someone like Trump. The next day, the president invited Comey to a one-on-one dinner, where — according to Comey’s own notes from that time — Trump proceeded to act like a Tammany Hall boss. He tells Comey that he needs his loyalty. Trump asks him if he likes his job. After he fires Flynn, Trump asks Comey to go easy on his former national security adviser. All the while, Comey takes notes on the exchanges and assures Trump privately that he is not a target of the Russia probe.
Imagine if Trump had heeded Flynn’s advice and fired Comey instead of clumsily trying to charm and bully him. Back then it would have been a shrewd maneuver. Many Democrats were still seething at Comey for reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server two weeks before the election. Remember Senator Chuck Schumer saying he lost confidence in him only days before Americans voted in 2016 for president.
It was only after Trump announced that he fired his FBI director because of the Russia investigation that the near two-year probe into his obstruction of justice begins. And despite his threats, and even attempts, Trump never really succeeds at impeding it. The closest he came was to refuse a live interview, on advice of his lawyers.
Now that Mueller has concluded his investigation without showing criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia, the folly of Trump’s scheming is apparent. Had he just fired Comey in January 2017 and kept his mouth shut, Trump might still have faced an investigation over ties to Russia, but he could have avoided extending and expanding that so it became a nearly-two-year inquest into possible obstruction of justice as well. Instead, through incompetence and vanity, Trump became an author of his own inquisition and handed Mueller the most damning evidence against him.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.Reach