Now that we have the 448-page Mueller report in hand, one thing is abundantly clear: There may not be fire, but there is plenty of smoke choking the truth.
The redacted report, delivered Thursday, already has generated more questions — and ire — toward the president. But that is not entirely surprising.
After a sweeping 22-month investigation, Robert Mueller III found there was insufficient evidence to establish that President Trump or his associates engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to disrupt the 2016 election.
Yet, upon closer inspection, it appears Mueller decided he could clear Trump of obstruction if warranted, but he decided he couldn’t accuse him because of certain Department of Justice guidelines.
“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. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report stated.
Mueller didn’t accuse Trump of a crime, in large part, because he didn’t think he could — and not necessarily because the evidence was inconclusive. That’s significant, because it takes some sting out of the argument that Mueller “didn’t actually find a crime” — or, as Trump has claimed, “totally exonerated” him.
Investigators actually found numerous contacts between campaign advisers and Russians affiliated with the government during the campaign and after the election. But the special counsel did not establish that the contacts added up to an illegal conspiracy. That’s smoke — not fire.
But there are definitely flames visible here.
According to the early analysis on Thursday, the report detailed Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation, and the Mueller team debated whether the episodes amounted to criminal obstruction of justice. The report stated that, by virtue of his position as president, he had the authority to carry out several of the acts in question — including firing James Comey as FBI director.
The report suggests the motives behind a range of his most alarming actions, from seeking the ouster of officials to ordering a memo that would clear his name.
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the report stated.
The report also suggests that Trump saw the investigation as a viable threat, stating to associates, “Oh my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f---ed.”
Trump submitted written answers to the investigators, but the special counsel’s office considered them “inadequate.” And Mueller apparently did not press for a personal interview because doing so would cause a “substantial delay,” the report stated. There was “sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony.”
For certain, the report paints a grim, unflattering portrait of a president who believes the Justice Department and the FBI should answer his orders, even when it comes to investigations.
During one meeting in which the president complained about then-attorney general Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump insisted that past attorneys general had been more obedient to their presidents, referring to the Kennedy brothers and the Obama administration. He condemned Sessions as “weak.”
In the end, it appears Trump may have been saved by his own staff, who often refused to carry out orders they thought were problematic or legally dangerous. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report stated.
This points to serious problems inside this White House and the whims of a ruthless, feckless man whose actions seem to have compromised his presidency. Obstruction is still not presidential. (Just ask Nixon scholars.)
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler is preparing to “very quickly” subpoena the Justice Department and go to court seeking to obtain grand jury information, while House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff says he’s made a formal request to obtain the counterintelligence information from Mueller’s investigation to learn whether Trump is “compromised” in any way.
We submit that where there is smoke, there will be fire.