The long wait is over. An hour ago, the special counsel’s office and the Department of Justice released the lightly redacted final report from Robert Mueller on the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, as well as potential obstruction of justice afterward. And while it’s largely as advertised in William Barr’s summary letter, the report offers plenty of open spaces to debate Donald Trump’s behavior, especially on the latter issue.
Let’s start with the executive summary on obstruction, an issue which has eclipsed the Russia-collusion hypothesis as the biggest issue with Trump’s opponents. As Barr noted in his summary, Mueller’s report explicitly states that they did not ‘exonerate’ Trump on this point. Based on the description of their approach, it sounds as though they think Trump could have been indicted. They made the decision early on not to approach obstruction as a chargeable crime, not just because of the DoJ’s longstanding policy on indicting sitting presidents, but also because of the damage it would do to governance. However, they pointedly determined that they could not clear Trump either:
That sounds like a reference to Trump’s refusal to meet personally with investigators and clear up questions about his “intent.” It also explains why Barr went to such lengths to address that in the presser earlier today. Barr knew this was coming.
What were the “ten episodes” of potential obstruction that Barr referenced? They appear to be more like categories, as some of these encompass multiple actions, and there are more than ten:
- The [Trump] campaign’s response to reports about Russian support for Trump
- Conduct involving FBI Director Comey and Michael Flynn
- The President’s reaction to the continuing Russia investigation
- The President’s termination of Comey
- The appointment of a Special Counsel and efforts to remove him
- Efforts to curtail the Special Counsel’s investigation
- Efforts to prevent public disclosure of evidence
- Further efforts to have the Attorney General take control of the investigation
- Efforts to have McGahn deny that the President had ordered him to have the Special Counsel removed
- Conduct toward Flynn, Manafort, [redacted]
- Conduct involving Michael Cohen
- Overarching factual issues
I’d guess that the [redacted] name is Roger Stone, the main figure similarly situated in an indictment who hasn’t pleaded out. There are other possibilities, but Stone’s the only one who comes to mind that has been the subject of public statements by Trump. In summing up the section with the categories, Mueller acknowledges that some of these actions fall well within the purview of the president, and that many of them took place in public. Doing things in public view, however, doesn’t make them any less criminal as obstruction, Mueller points out, although it might show that they weren’t intended as such.
Mueller then reaches a rather grim conclusion, at least for the White House:
If the judgment is “informed by the totality of the evidence,” the clear implication is that Mueller believed that Trump intended to obstruct the investigation. Expect Democrats to seize on that paragraph as they start subpoenaing everyone mentioned in the categories of potentially obstructive actions.
As for not issuing a grand-jury subpoena for Trump’s testimony, the Mueller report argues that they didn’t need it to reach that conclusion:
That is very pointedly not an exoneration. It explains why Barr described the conclusions he and Rod Rosenstein reached as “disagreeing” with Mueller on obstruction.
The executive summary on Russia-collusion is more straightforward. Barr’s description in his summary letter hits it pretty much on the head. Mueller found no evidence of any Americans colluding with Russian intelligence to interfere in the election, including campaign officials and workers. Mueller found evidence of a number of Russian intel efforts to penetrate the campaign, but they came to nothing — although that sounds more like good fortune, as it’s not clear the campaign was aware of those efforts.
On the issue of the Carter Page FISA warrant, however, Mueller seems satisfied that sufficient predicate existed for surveillance:
Later in the report, Mueller’s team writes that Page sold himself to the Trump campaign based on those contacts in Russia:
If that’s the case, then the FISA warrant may well have been sufficiently predicated, especially with the other activity that emerged well before the Christopher Steele dossier.
We’ll have more as we all work through the details. Thus far, the bottom line appears to be that Russia-collusion was indeed a myth, although not without any factual basis — but there are more than a few details on obstruction which will dog the White House over the next several weeks. And when Robert Mueller testifies to Congress on obstruction, Trump and his 2020 campaign should be worried about what the special counsel will have to say.
Update: This might still be true in an electoral sense:
From the Mueller report: When President Trump learned Mueller was appointed as special counsel, Trump “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm f—ed.’” https://t.co/rSpnRuVmc3
— CNN (@CNN) April 18, 2019
Our Twitchy colleague Grep P adds in a bit of context:
Later on in the report, the President reportedly said, “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.” This makes it pretty clear that President Trump didn’t mean this would end his presidency, as in he’d be forced to leave office but instead meant it would hamper his ability to get things accomplished as President.
True, but it’s still not clear that it won’t yet work out that way. This isn’t a good look either:
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 18, 2019
The best that can be said here is that Trump didn’t follow through and therefore didn’t obstruct anything. That was Barr’s argument this morning. I suspect it won’t be Mueller’s argument when he testifies in congressional hearings.
Update: In reading through the details, what comes through most clearly is the problems Trump creates for himself when venting, both publicly and privately. Consider this episode with Newsmax’ Christopher Ruddy:
On Monday, June 12, 2017, Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of the President’s, met at the White House with Priebus and Bannon. Ruddy recalled that they told him the President was strongly considering firing the Special Counsel and that he would do so precipitously, without vetting the decision through Administration officials. Ruddy asked Priebus if Ruddy could talk publicly about the discussion they had about the Special Counsel, and Priebus said he could. Priebus told Ruddy he hoped another blow up like the one that followed the termination of Corney did not happen. Later that day, Ruddy stated in a televised interview that the President was “considering perhaps terminating the Special Counsel” based on purported conflicts of interest. Ruddy later told another news outlet that “Trump is definitely considering” terminating the Special Counsel and “it’s not something that’s being dismissed.” Ruddy’s comments led to extensive coverage in the media that the President was considering firing the Special Counsel.
White House officials were unhappy with that press coverage and Ruddy heard from friends that the President was upset with him. On June 13, 2017, Sanders asked the President for guidance on how to respond to press inquiries about the possible firing of the Special Counsel. The President dictated an answer, which Sanders delivered, saying that ” [w]hile the president has every right to” fire the Special Counsel, “he has no intention to do so.”
Venting is not obstruction, of course. However, this episode does seem to be a modern — if much less lethal — retelling of the Thomas Becket-Henry II “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” episode.