The Mueller investigation is over, and the only people close to Donald Trump who have been criminally charged are his former campaign chairman, former deputy campaign chairman, former personal lawyer, former national security adviser, former campaign foreign policy adviser and Roger Stone, the president’s longtime friend and strategist. The report written by the special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a quotation in a brief summary issued by Attorney General William Barr, says that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Naturally, the president and his allies are claiming, as one of Trump’s tweets said, “Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
I won’t pretend that the weekend’s news was not very good for Trump and dispiriting for those of us who despise him. Whatever else is in the Mueller report, it says, according to Barr, that the investigation “did not establish” that anyone from the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its 2016 election interference. The overtures we all know about — the Trump Tower meeting, Trump’s public call for Russia to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails, which Russian hackers tried to do that very day — were not part of a crime, or at least not part of a crime that the special counsel could prove. There will be no deus ex Mueller bringing this wretched presidency to an early end. On the contrary, Trump is emboldened, and his foes momentarily defensive.
Until the Mueller report is publicly released, however, it’s impossible to tell how much of Trump’s victory is substantive and how much is spin. The report, evidently, leaves open the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. In his letter to Congress about the report, Barr said that he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, made the determination that no obstruction of justice occurred. Of course, last year Barr wrote a memo calling Mueller’s obstruction investigation “grossly irresponsible” and “fatally misconceived,” which is surely why Trump appointed him in the first place. There is no reason for anyone to take his finding seriously.
Even some of the underlying questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia remain open. Here, those of us who’d hoped for more from Mueller should be mindful of the temptation to grasp at straws. On Friday, when the news broke that Mueller wasn’t recommending any more indictments, many of us immediately asked whether there were sealed indictments. There weren’t. As we parse Barr’s letter, we should be aware of the human tendency toward motivated reasoning.
But we should be equally aware of the media tendency to capitulate in the face of Trumpian triumphalism. (Recall the pressure to give Trump credit after his first meeting with Kim Jong-un, despite the emptiness of the resulting agreement.) So we shouldn’t overlook the fact that when it comes to Trump’s relationship with Russia, Barr’s letter speaks only to very narrow questions about Trump campaign involvement in Russian information warfare operations in 2016.
Barr wrote that no Trump associate conspired or “knowingly” coordinated with the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm that spread pro-Trump and anti-Clinton propaganda. Did any do so unknowingly? Barr also wrote that the special counsel didn’t find that Trump associates “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” in hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers, but few thought the campaign had a role in the actual digital break-in.
Still, assuming Barr’s summary is accurate, it means that while Trump was installed with Russia’s help, neither he nor his campaign assisted Russia in committing the crimes that aided his ascent. (If he cheated his way to victory, it was through more pedestrian alleged violations of campaign finance law.) We’re still in the dark, however, about all the steps Trump took to thwart the investigation and about the extent of his vulnerability to compromise.
On Saturday, the left-wing writer Matt Taibbi published a widely shared essay calling Russiagate “this generation’s W.M.D.,” a national security hoax, abetted by a credulous media, akin to the one that justified the Iraq War. “The biggest thing this affair has uncovered so far is Donald Trump paying off a porn star,” he wrote.
That’s silly. The biggest thing this affair has uncovered is that throughout much of the presidential campaign, Trump was seeking to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The deal had the potential to make hundreds of millions of dollars for the Trump Organization, and Trump’s lawyer solicited the Russian government’s help to get it done. After the election, Trump lied about the deal to the American people. Vladimir Putin knew the truth, giving him leverage over Trump. Is that the only leverage he had?
It now falls to Congress to find out, and it’s important that Democrats not allow themselves to be intimidated by right-wing chest-beating, particularly if Republicans try to quash the report’s release. Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, Representative Devin Nunes, a devoted Trump lackey, called for the report to be burned. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, has said he would “fight very aggressively” to stop the president’s written answers to Mueller from being made public. Republicans may be gloating, but it’s Democrats who should be on the offensive. If Trump thinks he has been vindicated, then what is he hiding?
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