Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation, released Thursday, lays out in anecdotes and legal analysis what U.S. Attorney General William Barr telegraphed in his March summary: There was no collusion with the Russians by candidate Donald Trump or his campaign associates, but serious questions remain as to whether President Trump obstructed the pursuit of justice.
To sum up: No collusion, but no closure for the country, either.
No collusion? If you watched much TV news Thursday, you might have filed a Missing Noun report. Remember, the investigation’s purpose was to determine if Trump or his associates colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election. That turned out to be a dry hole. One of the president’s favorite slogans — “No collusion!” — may be one of his most honest.
No closure? There’s enough evidence in the report to keep the political battle going over Trump’s fitness for office through the 2020 election cycle. Trump supporters, and Americans who simply want to move on, see reason to declare the Mueller years over.
Trump’s foes, of course, see it differently. Democrats, who control the U.S. House and have the power to impeach the president, will amp up their attacks, with justification. The second big conclusion from Mueller’s report is his decision to leave Trump twisting on the accusation that he obstructed this investigation. “While this report does not conclude that Trump committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller wrote. That’s because there is evidence that while Trump didn’t help the Russians meddle in 2016, he did attempt to meddle in the federal probe of his campaign circle.
It’s a bizarre situation. If Trump had allowed then-FBI Director James Comey to finish his assigned task, the president might have emerged from this mire long ago. But he didn’t stay in his lane, Mueller makes clear. Trump tried to quash the Russia investigation by demanding Comey’s loyalty, by urging then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself and then by firing Comey.
Mueller declined to declare whether Trump obstructed justice in part because Justice Department guidelines pre-empt bringing charges against a sitting president. Thus it would be unfair, Mueller evidently concluded, to make allegations Trump couldn’t refute. What’s more, presidents have broad powers, which would complicate any determination that Trump committed a crime.
Mueller does, though, imply that if Trump were not president, he’d be in legal jeopardy. As the report puts it: “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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
What’s obvious is that Trump should thank his staff for saving him from himself. The report chronicles several instances in which members of Trump’s administration, including Comey, refused or avoided Trump’s bidding, thus averting a stronger obstruction case against the president. Take, for example, the drama on June 17, 2017, when Trump called McGahn at home to demand that Mueller be removed. McGahn didn’t act, the report says, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”
Here’s what we’re left with: a closed investigation of collusion, but the tantalizing tale of a president who expected members of his administration to bend to his authority. Trump acted according to his character — impulsive, bullying, disinterested in the finer points of law or the traditions of exercising government power. Trump’s supporters say he was justifiably defending himself against false, politically motivated allegations. To which Democrats retort: The investigations of Trump will continue.
In fact there are other investigations of Trump. For now impeachment is unlikely; Senate Republicans wouldn’t convict. Therefore, based on what we know, the Mueller report — to the surprise of many — won’t define Trump’s presidency as much as more conventional considerations, such as the U.S. economy. Trump now has an opportunity to move beyond Mueller’s cloud.
In 18-plus months, voters will render their judgment on Trump. That’s a lifetime in today’s peripatetic politics. After the Mueller era, what happens to Trump on Nov. 3, 2020, is largely up to him.