So much for collusion. The media conversation has now officially moved on from the obsession of the last two years to obstruction of justice.
That’s because the first volume of the voluminous Mueller report, the half devoted to what was supposed to be the underlying crime of a Trump conspiracy with Russia, came up completely empty. It tells us very little that’s new. There’s no particularly sinister information about Carter Page, the bit player the FBI repeatedly told the FISA court was probably a Russian agent. The operators who portrayed themselves as closest to WikiLeaks or Russia were usually braggarts and liars exaggerating their importance. Nothing came of the infamous Trump Tower meeting. Paul Manafort wasn’t at the center of conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, but operating in his greedy self-interest.
The Trump campaign was amateurish and without scruple in exploiting the WikiLeaks disclosures, but we all could have agreed on that long ago, without a years-long special-counsel investigation. Indeed, given how unlikely collusion always was and how far the evidence gathered by Mueller is from showing it, one wonders why the special counsel couldn’t have issued an interim report long ago, dispelling the persistent — and poisonous — idea that Trump was about to be proven a traitor.
The business end of the Mueller report is the second volume, on obstruction. The investigation ended up following the typical pattern of special-counsel probes on a much larger scale — fixating on process crimes even when there is no underlying offense. Only in this case, the target was the president of the United States.
The report implicitly picks an argument with Attorney General William Barr over the question whether a president can obstruct justice in the course of exercising his lawful powers. We are inclined to Barr’s view that he can’t. Regardless, the case against Trump is ambiguous, as even Mueller acknowledges.
The firing of FBI Director James Comey was almost certainly motivated by the president’s frustration that the FBI director wouldn’t say publicly that he wasn’t under investigation, indeed creating the opposite public impression. Some of Trump’s deceptions were for public consumption, not to influence the investigation. Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller and get then-attorney general Jeff Sessions to curtail the investigation came to nothing.
Finally, despite Trump’s hatred for the investigation, his White House cooperated with it fully.
None of this is to deny the report’s distressing portrayal of how President Trump operates. He avoids potentially disastrous missteps, such as firing Mueller, when his aides ignore him and he fails to follow up. His dishonesty constantly creates dilemmas for those around him, forcing them to choose between lying for him or defying him. No president of the United States should ever applaud people for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors, or call someone who cooperates a “rat.” Most White House scandals involve presidents getting ill served by overly zealous, norm-defying advisers. In this episode, Trump flipped the script.
But Mueller wasn’t charged with establishing whether or not Trump is a normal president. It is bizarre that such a damning depiction of the chief executive was produced by an inferior officer of the executive branch. It is even more bizarre that Mueller punted on whether the president had committed a crime — leaving the question to the Justice Department that was supposed to be too conflicted to undertake the Russia investigation via the usual channels — and yet still laid out a quasi-indictment of the president, perhaps as a catalyst to an impeachment inquiry in Congress.
We have never been fans of special-counsel investigations, which often lack proportion and take up politically charged questions best left to politically accountable bodies. Nothing about the Mueller probe changes our view.