Robert Mueller’s final report tells us what we knew all along.
In case anyone forgot, President Donald Trump is reminding us why anything short of overwhelming evidence that he conspired with Russia or obstructed justice was always going to celebrated as a victory. “A complete and total exoneration,” Trump declared of an investigation that was no such thing.
The Mueller report explicitly states that the special counsel did not exonerate the president of the crime of obstruction of justice even as it cleared his campaign of collusion with Russia. But is anyone at this point surprised that Trump would lie about a report that investigated, among other things, whether the lies the president told in office constituted a crime?
Obstruction of justice is to presidents what tax evasion is to mobsters. It was the first of the articles of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee 45 years ago against President Nixon. But a key difference — and one of the critical issues for anyone investigating Trump — is that Nixon committed his crimes in secret, and then got caught covering them up. Trump’s obstructions and his awful behavior are right in front of us every single day.
Attorney General William Barr’s brief letter to Congress summarizing the Mueller investigation noted that many of the president’s actions that could be considered evidence of obstruction of justice “took place in public view,” and “have been the subject of public reporting.” Foremost among them are the events surrounding FBI Director James Comey’s 2017 slapdash dismissal. According to Comey’s notes, Trump had asked Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation into national security adviser Michael Flynn and his lies about contacts with the Russian ambassador. After firing Comey, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that “this Russia thing” was part of the reason behind his decision to fire the FBI director. (He then contradicted himself on Twitter, declaring, “I never fired James Comey because of Russia.”)
Those actions formed what the FBI calls an “articulable factual basis” for an investigation and could easily have been grounds for impeachment. But Trump’s daily fire hose of mendacity, amorality and narcissism have so debased the office that a finding of insufficient evidence to prove that the president obstructed justice beyond a reasonable doubt is an occasion to uncork the champagne.
There seems to be a sort of cognitive bias at work that causes many if not all of us to discount what we witness daily with our own eyes. We lend greater credence to anonymous sources in newspapers telling us about the president’s fatal attraction to Putin than we do to Trump himself, who has told us, more than once, that he believes Putin over his own intelligence community. While we waited for the Mueller report, we seemed to forget Trump’s own call for Russia to hack his opponent, his hiring of a campaign chairman who had been in the pay of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, and how he sometimes echoes Kremlin talking points about world affairs. That may not be a crime, but we don’t need Mueller to tell us that it’s a national security nightmare.
Perhaps it’s the very public nature of Trump’s actions that led Mueller, with the game on the line, to punt on the decision about whether Trump’s actions were a crime of obstruction of justice or not.
We are told that after a “thorough factual investigation,” the special counsel considered using the Department of Justice’s standards governing prosecution decisions and then decided not to. The reasons behind that decision, however, remain unclear, especially without the full report in front of us.
“We waited two years for this?” one Twitter wag asked, and in fact, what led a tradition-bound prosecutor like Mueller “not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” is a question that will haunt the investigation for a long time.
Barr wasted no time in declaring that the facts did not support a charge of obstruction of justice. Under Barr’s somewhat specious reasoning, Mueller found no evidence of collusion; ergo, there was no intent and no crime to obstruct. Democrats are unlikely to be so charitable. Congress is sure to demand a fuller explanation, perhaps even from Mueller himself.
It certainly matters whether Trump committed a crime or not, but that’s not all that matters. Character matters, as Ralph Reed, then the leader of the Christian Coalition, was so fond of telling us in the Clinton years. And it was never up to Mueller to decide whether Trump is fit to hold office. It was always up to us.
(Seth Hettena is a San Diego-based investigative reporter and the author of “Trump/Russia: A Definitive History.”)