Nothing Changed

Special counsel Robert Mueller

One week ago, everyone awaited the release of the Mueller report. Today, we still are waiting for release of the Mueller report. Nothing has changed.

Here is what we know today, which is what we knew a week ago. First, Russia interfered in the 2016 American election. Second, there were myriad contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents. And, third, President Donald Trump tried to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into those contacts and related matters. What is different today from a week ago is that we now have Attorney General William Barr’s assessment of Mueller’s report, but not the report.

Attorney General William Barr

Barr says, in his summary to Congress, that Mueller concluded no “U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated” with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. The use of the word “knowingly” is telling since it is clear that many Trump campaign officials, including the candidate’s eldest son and Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, had contacts with Russians. Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian after a promise of damaging information on Hillary Clinton, and Manafort handed polling data to a business associate with ties to Russian intelligence. It is not difficult to conclude that some close to Trump may not have succeeded in coordinating with Russians during the campaign, but not for want of trying. What else might we learn from reading the entire Mueller report?

On the explosive issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, Mueller punted, saying he could neither conclude the president committed a crime nor could he exonerate the president. Mueller left it to the attorney general or Congress to reach a conclusion on the question of obstruction of justice, which Barr did within 48 hours of receiving what is apparently a voluminous and thorough report. “I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” Barr writes. 

To be clear, this is Barr’s interpretation of Mueller’s conclusions, not Mueller’s conclusions. Barr is a political appointee of President Trump, put in office precisely because Trump believed Barr skeptical of the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation. Barr argued, before his appointment, that Mueller’s inquiry into obstruction was “fatally misconceived” because, according to Barr, the president’s request that then-FBI Director James Comey let go of the probe into Michael Flynn, Trump’s one-time national security adviser, and subsequent firing of Comey did not constitute obstruction since both acts were within Trump’s presidential powers. Congress needs to hear from the attorney general as to whether Barr’s earlier views colored his current interpretation of Mueller’s findings. Our representatives in Congress also need to see the full report to know if Barr correctly read the report, and lawmakers should probably hear from Mueller directly, as well.

While Mueller did not “exonerate” the president, Trump and his allies have taken a victory lap. Before buying into Trump’s interpretation of the report’s conclusions, let us engage in a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that Mueller had not brought his numerous indictments of Trump colleagues and Russians during the course of his investigation. Imagine, also, that The New York Times and The Washington Post had not done their superb investigative reporting into the alleged misdeeds of the Trump campaign, his inaugural committee, the Trump family business, and the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Imagine that we were not aware of the hush money paid to a pornstar and a Playboy model. Imagine that we did not know about all the investigations into the Trump campaign, the inaugural committee, and the Trump businesses conducted by state and federal authorities in New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Now, finally, imagine that all of the above came out in the Mueller report, and the public was privy to the report. No one has to imagine how gobsmacked everyone — at least any thinking person — would be at the level of collusion, obstruction, corruption, and wrongdoing contained in the report. Looked at this way, in our thought experiment, the Mueller report becomes exceedingly bad news for the president, for whom nothing has changed. 

George Conway

The initial response to the Mueller report takes impeachment off the table, for now. But, Congress needs to continue its investigations into the campaign, the inaugural committee, and the Trump Organization. On obstruction, my guess is that Mueller either believed he could not indict a sitting president — he did not, after all, exonerate the president, and he did not interview Trump — or he believed proving obstruction would have been difficult. As George Conway notes, there is a difference between a president destroying evidence or directing a witness to lie and a request to the FBI director — Comey — to see if he could possibly not look closely into the national security adviser’s — Flynn’s — misdeeds. What is not indictable still may be impeachable!

We need to see the Mueller report, if only because of what Barr’s letter about the report does not say. The letter does not tell us whether Mueller found evidence of crimes. (Just because such evidence does not meet the judicial standard of beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that there were no crimes committed that might rise to the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as outlined in the Constitution.) Barr’s letter does not tell us why, if there were no evidence of collusion nor obstruction, Trump, his appointees, political colleagues, and family members lied repeatedly to the American people about contacts with Russians. Barr’s letter says Russians offered to assist the Trump campaign, but it does not tell us why no one associated with the campaign who had contacts with Russians failed to report those contacts to the authorities. And, the letter says nothing about the numerous ongoing investigations into Trumpian corruption. On that, nothing has changed.

Collusion always was going to be hard to prove, if only because Trump and the Russians did not need an express agreement. A hazy understanding between the Trump campaign and the leaders in the Kremlin was more likely. Such a deal would involve the quid of Russian help for Trump during the campaign, which came, and the quo of a pro-Russian foreign policy, including sanctions relief, which happened. That alone makes Donald Trump unfit for office. And I have not mentioned the thousands of lies, unseemly behavior, and corruption marking this administration. The Barr letter on the Mueller report changed nothing on all that.

The American people and their representatives in Congress need to see the Mueller report to learn what, if anything, changed. 

Posted March 29, 2019

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