So, about that whole “total exoneration” thing. As it turns out, yeah, no. Not really. Not at all.
Special Counsel Robert Swan Mueller III’s full, albeit redacted, 448-page report on the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia (hint: it was extensive) during the 2016 election was released last Thursday to considerable fanfare and wall-to-wall media coverage, which means that I’m approximately the one millionth journalist to write something about this. You already clicked on the article though, which I suppose means you want to read more about Washington’s most all-consuming story, so let’s get into it. Where were we? Oh yeah. “No Collusion, … Complete and Total EXONERATION [sic].”
In fact, there may have been some light collusion, depending on what definition you use, and there were fully 10 counts of potential obstruction of justice detailed in the report. What’s more, the spectre of the Mueller report isn’t yet done haunting this White House, because the probe kicked off 14 other investigations that live on either in the federal judiciary or at the state level. So if nothing else, you can expect more angry tweets from the president.
And not only does the report run counter to the enduring White House narrative but also to the version of events presented by recently confirmed Attorney General William Barr. Last month, Barr delivered a far more favorable four-page memo to Congress summarizing the results of the investigation, which concluded that there was no conspiracy or coordination — which is to say, collusion — between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the evidence presented in the report was not sufficient to establish that obstruction of justice occurred.
Barr also held a press conference the day the report was released, which prompted Fox News anchor Chris Wallace to observe that “the Attorney General seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, for the counselor for the president, rather than the Attorney General.” And when you consider that The New Yorker published a rather damning story (but an excellent read!) examining whether Fox has morphed fully into propaganda last month, that’s saying something.
Collusion and conspiracy and coordination, oh my!
To clarify: Despite the president’s frequent tweeting, collusion isn’t actually a legal concept or a specific crime. Neither is coordination. Instead, Mueller’s investigation looked for evidence of criminal conspiracy, and the special counsel ultimately determined that no such conspiracy occurred. It did, however, document two distinct instances of Russian involvement in the 2016 election with the goal of electing Trump: a social media influence campaign and extensive hacking.
That isn’t to say there was a lack of effort in the collusion department though. Multiple people affiliated with the Trump campaign, including Nixon enthusiast Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr., were in contact with Russians who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign also sought to take advantage of hacked DNC and Clinton emails released by Wikileaks, and Trump very publicly asked Russia to obtain “the 30,000 emails that are missing” during the campaign.
Those are just a few of the highlights, because as it turns out you can cram a lot of borderline criminality into a 448-page report, but ultimately, there are two important takeaways.
First, legally speaking, nothing the Trump campaign did rose to the threshold of criminal conspiracy. Second, it wasn’t for lack of trying. There were no shortage of Trump-Russia contacts which were, at the very least, legally dubious, but ultimately none played out to the extent that they constituted clear-cut criminality.
Not no obstruction
In regards to obstruction, also known as “Volume II of II of the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election,” this is the part of the report where things get a lot less exoneration-y for the president and Barr’s summary starts to look worse and worse. As I mentioned up above, while Mueller does not conclude either way whether the president or anyone in his orbit committed an obstruction of justice offense, the report does go into extensive detail about 10 possible instances of obstruction.
This is also the part of the report where significant daylight is visible between Barr’s account and Mueller’s. It’s important to clarify that, rather than deciding there was not sufficient evidence to establish obstruction of justice — the Barr interpretation — Mueller instead elected not to make “a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” which is something entirely different and far less exculpatory.
Notably, the report confirms a 2018 story by The New York Times, which reported that, in June 2017, the president ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Mueller but backed down after McGahn refused and threatened to resign in protest. The report also describes how Trump told his former campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski to have former AG Jeff Sessions reverse his recusal from the investigation and set limits on the Mueller probe, which Lewandowski ultimately declined to do.
Those are just two examples, and similar incidents abound in the second volume of the report, but the gist is this: While Mueller declined to draw an explicit conclusion, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t obstruction. In fact, The New York Times identified at least four instances where “there is sufficient evidence to ask a grand jury to consider charging this act as illegal obstruction.” For more on that, you can read their in-depth analysis here, but suffice it to say that the second half of the report in particular does the exact opposite of exonerate the president.
So what’s next?
Now that the report is out, the burning question on the Hill is impeachment. Some Democrats have described the Mueller report as an “impeachment referral” and are more than ready to get started filing articles of impeachment. In the “impeach” camp, among others, are 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris, as well as freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of “impeach the motherfucker” fame. Congressional Democratic leadership, however, is less enthusiastic, so that likely won’t go anywhere quickly unless something big changes.
In the meantime, Democrats still control the House, and that means Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler is bringing the colloquial subpoena cannon to bear on the White House. He has not only subpoenaed McGahn, who is intimately involved in several of the prospective cases of obstruction detailed in the report, but the unredacted Mueller report itself. The same committee is also looking to have Mueller himself testify, which means C-SPAN will likely have a very good few months coming up.
And of course, the president will continue to tweet through it all, bouncing from live-tweeting Fox News to raging against the media and violating copyright law faster than an adderall-crazed hummingbird.
Lastly, if you want to read the full report, you can find it here, courtesy of the wonderful and very much not fake news folks at The Washington Post. Or you can subscribe to America’s proud capitalist tradition and buy it on Amazon, even though it’s available completely for free on the internet. Either way, enjoy!