President Trump has repeatedly crowed that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report is a “total exoneration.” After its release Thursday morning, he tweeted: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats — Game Over.”
But the report itself, for those who bothered to read it, makes a mockery of that assertion. Even with its multiple redactions, the voluminous document made public Thursday by the Justice Department contains numerous examples of Trump degrading his office by engaging in sleazy, self-serving, deceptive and arguably criminal behavior.
It’s true that the special counsel didn’t establish that Trump’s campaign criminally cooperated with Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential campaign. Instead, the report provides evidence that a Russian organization with ties to the Kremlin tirelessly promoted Trump and bashed Hillary Clinton on social media with the (evidently) unwitting aid of Trump campaign officials and Trump himself. It also notes several overtures by Russians to supply stolen emails and other “dirt” to the Trump campaign, drawing interest rather than alarm from campaign officials.
But the report absolutely does not clear the president of the serious accusation that he tried to obstruct justice through a variety of efforts to abort or interfere with the Russia investigation.
On the contrary, the report says: “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, we are unable to reach that judgment.” It goes on to say — despite Trump’s boasts to the contrary — that the report “does not exonerate him.”
A close look through the hundreds of pages of facts, evidence and legal interpretation reveals, as the report itself says, “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations.”
To name just a few: Trump attempted to have then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions reverse his own decision — required by ethics rules — to recuse himself from the investigation. Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey — at least partly because of the “pressure” from the Russia investigation — and then lied about why he did so. He directed White House counsel Don McGahn to order Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller soon after the special counsel’s appointment. McGahn refused to carry out the order and prepared to resign, and Trump later backed down. When the New York Times reported on Trump’s demand, the president asked McGahn to deny it.
The report makes it clear that most of Trump’s attempts at interference failed, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Despite that damning judgment, the special counsel did not to take a position on whether Trump obstructed justice. Acting on their own, Atty. Gen. William Barr and Rosenstein then concluded that the evidence “is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
In other words, Trump just barely skated by, despite ample evidence of misbehavior, thanks to a favorable and generous reading of the facts and laws by his own attorney general. For the president to call that an “exoneration” is laughable.
Furthermore, even if you buy the attorney general’s conclusion that no illegal obstruction took place, that doesn’t make Trump’s actions much less outrageous. Nor does anything in the report prevent Congress from calling Mueller to testify or from continuing its own investigations into these and other unsavory actions by the president and his administration. Congress can also consider whether Trump’s actions amount to “high crimes and misdemeanors” justifying impeachment and removal from office.
Impeachment, however, comes with its own problems. For one thing, it seems unlikely to gain traction in the House, let alone win the two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate that would be necessary to remove Trump. What’s more, a battle over impeachment would be extraordinarily bitter and divisive for an already badly polarized country.
As we have said before, the best way to end the Trump presidency is for voters to turn out in large numbers to remove him in next year’s election. The misconduct and deception documented in Mueller’s report strengthens the already urgent argument for replacing him. But even without it, there are dozens of good reasons to emphatically reject his leadership.
Americans didn’t need the Mueller report to establish that this president is ignorant, erratic and irresponsible or that he is contemptuous of the rule of law.
But the special counsel’s account underlines the importance of making Donald Trump a one-term president.