The Mueller report’s defense of Trump: exculpatory incompetence, misplaced rage.
The most generous reading of Robert Mueller’s report, the one pushed by President Donald Trump’s own defenders, is, in fact, profoundly damning. Here’s how Attorney General William Barr explained the president’s actions:
In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation, as he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates.
At the same time there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability, yet as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion. As the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.
The story the report tells is that a foreign government illegally interfered in America’s presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and rather than treating that incursion as an attack on America’s political institutions, Trump treated it transactionally, as a gift to him personally.
And so, rather than defend America from Russia’s attacks, he defended himself from the investigations into Russia’s attacks. Rather than see Russia’s hacks as a threat to the legitimacy of America’s elections, he saw the investigation as a threat to the legitimacy of his own election. So rather than defend the rule of law, Trump subverted it.
The irony is that if Trump’s defenders are right, then it was Trump himself who delegitimized his presidency. He did it through specific acts of obstruction, like firing James Comey and trying to fire Jeff Sessions and lying to the public, but he also did it by failing to understand that being president of the United States means putting America, well, first.
What Robert Mueller’s report actually says
The first half of the Mueller report concludes that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” that it did so on Trump’s behalf, and that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit” from Russia’s intervention. The report also shows that the Trump organization was in negotiations to build a Trump hotel in Moscow through 2016, and that people in Trump’s orbit appeared to have advance warning of the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
What the report does not establish is explicit coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. There is no smoking gun where a Trump confidant asks Russian operatives to hack Clinton’s emails — well, aside from the time Trump asked Putin to do so in public — or advises them on when to release them.
Trump received help from the Russians, welcomed that help, and arguably rewarded Russia for that help, but Mueller does not present evidence that Trump or any of his associates helped Russia help him.
The second half of the Mueller report is about obstruction of justice. Here, the report establishes a pattern of behavior on the part of Trump himself. Trump fires people, threatens to fire people, tries to fire people, and repeatedly lies to the public and to his own staff in an effort to derail the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Much of this has leaked out before, but seeing Trump’s actions recorded coolly, clearly, and chronologically gives the story unexpected force.
There is the night, for instance, when Trump calls White House counsel Don McGahn and demands he order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller. “McGahn did not carry out the direction,” Mueller writes, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”
Trump then demands McGahn write a statement in which he says that Trump never ordered him to fire Mueller. McGahn refuses to lie to cover up the president’s request.
There is the ongoing effort to force Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself, and the eventual request that then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus fire Sessions so he could be replaced by someone who would do more to protect Trump from the investigation. Priebus never carries out the order.
Trump personally edits a press statement on behalf of his son Donald Trump Jr., in which he states that the infamous meeting at the Trump Tower was just about adoption policy, deleting a reference to the stated purpose of the meeting, which was to share dirt on Hillary Clinton.
All in all, there are 10 separate episodes that Mueller examines as possible obstruction of justice. In the report, he makes the decision to leave the final judgment on this to Congress, rather than making a prosecutorial call himself.
It is clear from the text, though, that Mueller believes the charges are serious. “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,” he writes. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
The defense of Trump: he saw Russia as his ally, American investigators as his enemy
The document offers two possible defenses of Trump’s behavior here. The first is that “the President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful … largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
In other words, Trump repeatedly sought to obstruct justice, but the insubordination of his staff prevented his efforts from having much effect. Trump acted with criminal intent but exculpatory incompetence.
The other defense of Trump’s behavior, the one that provides a possible explanation for why he sought to derail the investigations despite the absence of coordination with Russia, is that he was simply furious; he perceived any investigation into Russia’s role in the election as an attack on him personally and a distraction from the work of the presidency.
Mueller’s report gestures toward this motive repeatedly, suggesting, for instance, that Trump saw the sanctions on Russia as “an attempt by the Obama administration to embarrass him by delegitimizing his election.”
Similarly, when Trump is fighting to stop Sessions from recusing himself, McGahn characterizes his motives, in part, as worrying that he’d be “unprotected from an investigation that could hobble the presidency and derail his policy objectives; and detract from favorable press coverage of a Presidential Address to Congress the President had delivered earlier in the week.”
This argument pops up again and again in the characterizations Trump’s staff makes of his motives. It was also the core of Barr’s defense of Trump. It is a deeply damning description of the president of the United States.
The most generous characterization of this is that Trump was so blinded by his own pride and political incentives that he understood an attack on the country’s political system as an alliance with his campaign, and so rather than turning on Russia with fury, he turned on those who would reveal Russia’s role with fury.
This is the thinking of a man who has never understood that the presidency is bigger than he is, that the role he now occupies requires a larger frame of reference than himself. The myopia this causes him comes up again and again. Notably, there is a section in the report where Trump is heard lamenting that he doesn’t have a more corrupt attorney general. “You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations?” he asked. “Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” To Trump, the attorney general’s role is to protect the president, not to serve the law.
The most generous read of the Mueller report’s findings does not clear Trump of wrongdoing. Instead, it argues that Trump betrayed the laws he swore to uphold because he thought doing so would protect his reputation, and that it was only the insubordination of his staff that restrained him from yet more egregious acts of criminality.