WASHINGTON, DC – The political situation in the United States is more unsettled now than at any time since I began covering it, including the Watergate era. President Donald Trump is a desperate, wounded, and unstable figure – a bloated, increasingly red-faced presence railing against the indignities to which he feels subjected by “haters” with nefarious motives.
Despite Trump’s seemingly unhinged rants, he appears to have understood from the start that his presidency was highly vulnerable. The report by US special counsel Robert Mueller, released last Thursday by Attorney General William Barr, cites Trump’s reaction to the news on May 17, 2017, that Mueller had been appointed to investigate his and his campaign’s links with Russia. “This is the end of my presidency,” Trump said. “I’m fucked.”
Mueller’s appointment came nine days after Trump, urged on by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, recklessly fired FBI director James Comey. Kushner argued, dimly, that because Comey had harmed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, his dismissal would be popular among Democrats.
Mueller, a widely respected former FBI director, was to pick up Comey’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s relationship with those efforts. By the time Comey announced the investigation in March 2017 (and introduced the word “collusion” into the Russia discussion), the FBI had opened another investigation, not covered in Mueller’s report, into whether Trump or others around him had been compromised by Russia. That investigation reportedly continues.
Trump’s reaction to the appointment of Mueller was perhaps the most honest thing he’s known to have said about his situation. From then on, he fought and maneuvered to prevent Mueller’s team from finding out how involved his campaign had been with high-level Russians.
Mueller’s redacted report – about 10% was blacked out, much of it presumably because it could affect ongoing prosecutions – hit Washington like a nuclear bomb. Its cautious approach was the source of its power. Although the report declined, mainly on narrow or technical grounds, to recommend that Trump be indicted – either in connection with the Russians’ 2016 efforts or for obstructing justice in his numerous attempts to block the counsel’s work – its dry, methodical, relentless recitation of why Trump was vulnerable on both fronts was devastating. And through his restraint, Mueller prevented his report, rather than Trump’s behavior, from being the issue.
Barr’s pathetic efforts to spin the report favorably to Trump – as he did via an unwarranted press conference 90 minutes before the report was released to Congress or the public – was all the more embarrassing when it became clear that he had lied about several points. He must have known that his lies about the report’s contents would be exposed immediately. Whether he thought he was helping Trump by drawing some fire himself, or was following orders, he disgraced himself. Barr, the kind of attorney general Trump had been wanting, is now subject to congressional chastisement in some form. In fact, Mueller clearly indicated that he thought Congress should act where he was prevented from doing so by a peculiar Justice Department rule, and that Trump should be prosecuted after he leaves office.
Mueller’s team rejected the term “collusion” as having no legal meaning, and settled on “coordination,” which it then defined narrowly as “an agreement – tacit or express – between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” Thus, the report does not conclude that there was no interaction between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-connected Russians – or, as Trump had been claiming repeatedly, “no collusion.” It says only that it could find no evidence to “establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Note the words “establish” and “government.”) It also rejected “conspiracy” on these narrow grounds.
And yet the report highlights the heavy traffic between members of the Trump team and Russian intelligence agents and oligarchs close to the Kremlin. It also disclosed that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had given his close associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian/Ukrainian intelligence figure, detailed internal polling information and briefed him on the “battleground states” crucial to Trump’s victory. Trump’s razor-thin margins in three states crucial to his victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – which he carried by only 80,000 votes combined, suggests that Russia might indeed have played a defining role in the election. But, though the narrow definition of what was beyond bounds may seem to defy common sense, Mueller was constrained by what he thought he could prove in court.
At the same time, the report indicates that Mueller believes Trump is guilty of attempting to obstruct the investigation. But he couldn’t recommend filing those charges, he wrote, because of a Justice Department rule against indicting or prosecuting a sitting president. The rationale for the rule – first established in 1973, when Richard Nixon was in legal jeopardy, by a Justice Department that was beholden to him – is that court proceedings would take too much of the president’s time. However questionable that justification, the rule – reaffirmed in 2000, in the wake of Bill Clinton’s impeachment scare – has taken on the aspect of holy writ.
But, exemplifying the maxim that where one stands depends on where one sits, two special or independent counsels came to opposite conclusions. But even if Mueller, a by-the-book man, had been inclined to challenge the rule in the courts, doing so could have taken a great deal of time. And Mueller indicated that fairness required him not to indict Trump without following that up with a trial, because the president would be marked without having a chance to clear himself.
The report did, however, suggest that charging Trump after he leaves office would be proper, and Mueller’s team has spun off 14 other cases to federal prosecutors concerning the president’s business activities and fundraising for his inauguration in 2017. Between those pending cases and others alleging abuse of presidential power for private gain, Trump’s post-presidency looks bleak – which implies that he will fight all the harder for reelection, hoping to beat the statute of limitations on a number of these charges.
A criminal approach to the Russia scandal never made much sense. An independent commission, like the one Congress established to investigate the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, would have been able to examine more realistically and comprehensively the possibility that an illegitimate president and profligate crook is in charge of the US government, as well as the ongoing threat of corruption by an ill-intentioned foreign power. Now the ball is back in the court of Congress, which is deeply divided over what, if anything, to do about it.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.