42° Good Morning
42° Good Morning

Special counsel Robert Mueller makes his case

Four pages of the Mueller report lay on

Four pages of the Mueller report lay on a witness table in the House Intelligence Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, in Washington on Thursday. Credit: AP / Cliff Owen

The report of special counsel Robert Mueller leads to several clear conclusions:

  • Russian interference in the 2016 election was not a hoax.
  • Mueller’s investigation was not a witch hunt.
  • President Donald Trump is not exonerated.
  • The findings of the 22-month probe raise, and answer, deeply troubling questions about the president’s actions.

Even though Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russians, and even though he was constrained by Department of Justice guidelines about whether a sitting president could be charged with obstructing justice, his richly detailed and carefully analyzed account leaves the American people with a critical decision to make.

Is Trump’s conduct before and after the 2016 election acceptable for an American president who pledges an oath to “take care” that the laws of this nation are faithfully executed?

A similar question cloaks Attorney General William Barr, who preceded the report’s release with remarks that were misleading, at best. It’s obvious now that he chopped quotes and omitted important details from Mueller’s 400-page account in the infamous four-page summary Barr issued last month in order to spin a narrative favorable to his benefactor. On Thursday, this shameful behavior continued when he did not accurately convey Mueller’s legal reasoning for not pursuing an obstruction case while still serving as Trump’s cheerleader-in-chief. Barr’s false narrative about Trump’s culpability is already unraveling. It’s doubtful he can credibly continue to serve as attorney general. But this is not about Barr.

Mueller’s investigation was rooted in the 2016 presidential campaign. His report concluded persuasively that the Russian government interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” that it did so expressly to help Trump get elected, that the Trump campaign expected to benefit from that interference, and that there were numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

That’s profoundly disturbing, as is Trump’s continuing refusal to condemn the Russian meddling for what it was — an attack on our electoral system, an intrusion that continues to this day.

Trump tried to steer probe

Mueller cited members of Russia’s Internet Research Agency for assuming false identities and organizing pro-Trump rallies — three in New York, others in Florida, Pennsylvania and elsewhere — and running scores of pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton political ads on social media. In one chilling episode, five hours after Trump made his fateful remarks at a campaign rally that he hoped Russia would find 30,000 missing Clinton emails, Russian military hackers attacked Clinton’s personal server and its email accounts.

Mueller did not find that Trump’s actions amounted to an underlying crime of conspiring criminally with the Russians. But the report makes clear that Trump feared that news stories emerging postelection about what did occur during the campaign would hurt him politically and make his election seem illegitimate. And that he responded by trying to influence Mueller’s investigation.

On this matter, too, the special counsel’s evidence is voluminous, ominous and compelling. Some of it is well known, as when he fired the man who began the Russian investigation, then-FBI Director James Comey, because, as the president later told NBC News, “This thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

Other actions were less publicized. But all of it fits into Mueller’s suggested framework of viewing the president’s pattern of conduct as a whole.

  • Before he fired Comey, Trump called National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and asked him to refute publicly stories linking Trump to Russia. Rogers did not, but he and NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, who also was on the call and called it his most unusual experience in 40 years in government, signed a memo documenting the conversation and placed it in a safe.
  • After Mueller was appointed special counsel, Trump told advisers it was “the end of his presidency.” When news broke that Mueller was investigating the president for potential obstruction, Trump called White House Counsel Don McGahn and told him to tell Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that he must fire Mueller. McGahn refused.
  • Two days later, Trump told former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the probe, that Sessions was to announce publicly that Trump had done nothing wrong and that Sessions was going to meet with Mueller and have him instead investigate election meddling for future elections. Lewandowski balked, instead asking senior White House adviser Rick Dearborn to deliver the message. Dearborn, too, refused.
  • When the media learned about the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., other campaign officials and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Clinton, the president several times told aides not to disclose emails that set up the meeting. While on Air Force One, he edited a statement for his son, making it false by disguising the stated purpose of the meeting; Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, then lied repeatedly in denying the president’s role.
  • When reports emerged later that Trump had asked McGahn to have Mueller fired and that McGahn had threatened to resign instead, Trump told White House officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story. When McGahn responded that the reports were accurate, Trump himself met with McGahn to ask him to deny them. McGahn again refused.

That Trump’s efforts to sabotage Mueller’s investigation largely were unsuccessful is not a reason to give Trump a pass. As the special counsel points out, the president’s attempts failed because his aides and advisers refused to carry out orders or bow to his wishes.

Trump’s moral ambiguity ripples through Mueller’s report. In one depicted meeting, he asks McGahn why he is taking notes about their conversation. He tries, directly or indirectly, to get others to lie on his behalf or change the scope of the investigation. Mueller also wrote that Trump refused to answer written questions about obstruction, and noted the “insufficiency” of his responses about Russian collusion, calling them “incomplete” and “imprecise.” Mueller said that at least 30 times Trump did not remember or recall the information requested.

Trump, or his defense attorneys, deserve credit for not exerting a claim of executive privilege and for not refusing to provide documents or witnesses to investigators. However, the report shows that much media reporting on the case was accurate and that White House aides repeatedly lied to the public.

Nation can’t just move on

Mueller’s investigation has consumed the nation for nearly two years. It fell into and then hardened the divide between us, as many Americans picked sides before the evidence was in.

Now the report has landed at a time when fatigue is the dominant reaction. The temptation, the easy response, is to say move on.

But that would be a mistake. There is too much that we must protect. The facts that Mueller uncovered about Russia and about Trump’s behavior are too troubling to let slide.

Ultimately, Mueller was right: What to do about Trump’s actions doesn’t belong in a courtroom. Instead, the correct response is a political one. But there are other steps that our nation should take.

  • The federal government immediately must allocate funding to safeguard state election systems from foreign hackers. The government also must get a handle on how to stop or minimize foreign agents from using social media to spread disinformation intended to sway voters, and work with the operators of digital platforms to make that happen.
  • Barr must follow through on his promise to give Mueller’s unredacted report to Congress.
  • Mueller already has been asked by the House Judiciary Committee to testify. He should. And the Senate should invite him and whoever else is needed to bring clarity to this story.
  • Most important, as was done after each special counsel investigation in recent history, Congress should re-examine and tighten the law to protect the independence of investigations into presidential conduct.

This is a pivotal time for our nation. Failing to act will only weaken and divide us further. Mueller has charted the terrain and laid out a road map. It won’t be an easy journey. But unless we undertake and complete it, there will only be more tough times ahead.