At 9:52 on the morning that the redacted version of the Mueller Report was to be released, I received an e-mail from a longtime acquaintance who’s a Trump supporter asking for “a public acknowledgement by you in the editorial section. It’s official from the Mueller Report: No Collusion with The Russians by the Trump campaign.”
I was puzzled by the timing: the report would not be released until 11 a.m., and so my correspondent was relying on a 9:30 press conference by William Barr consisting of the same spin he had offered late in March in a summary of the report that was tilted to cast Mr. Trump in the best possible light regarding whether his campaign had coordinated strategy with Russian operatives during the 2016 election and then the President engaged in obstruction of justice to cover it up.
The man writing me requesting the acknowledgment was a bright person; hardly one of the “uneducated voters” the President brags about as a key segment of his based. Surely he had to be aware that Mr. Barr was launching a pre-emptive strike, just as he had in the March 24 summary of the report’s contents that minimized the most-damaging detail: that the Special Counsel “[did] not exonerate” the President of obstruction.
Likes His Policies, Ignores His Character
But this reader was previously unmoved by my analogy between Mr. Trump’s transgressions and the less-serious-but-equally-dubious ones engaged in by Mayor de Blasio. His reasoning is simple: what he perceives as the President’s ideology allows him to justify the flaws in his character.
And so I smiled at the thought that my correspondent believed the report would force me to admit that my suspicions of Mr. Trump were unfounded and that he had defeated Hillary Clinton without outside interference from a hostile foreign power, and done nothing improper to try to derail an unfounded investigation.
The Mueller Report, all 448 pages of it, was released on schedule later that morning, and in some ways it was worse for Mr. Trump than letters two years ago from both state and Federal prosecutors in Manhattan were for Mr. de Blasio. Those letters legally let the Mayor off the hook while painting him as sleazy; the Special Counsel toward the end of the second section examining the behavior of the President and his campaign offered a discourse that could be seen as a guidebook for the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives as to the justification they could use in pursuing a legal case against the President regarding obstruction of justice.
Perhaps of greater harm to Mr. Trump was the one-paragraph conclusion of that 182-page section in terms of the impression it figured to leave with the public.
It stated, “The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, 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. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
According to a RealClearPolitics average of polls through April 23, Mr. Trump’s approval rating dropped by an average of 9 percent in the wake of the report.
It was a reminder that the Cliff’s Notes version of a riveting tale is always going to lose the flavor by boiling down its contents. Mr. Barr’s “does not exonerate” summation hardly did justice to the figurative indictment that paragraph alone offered.
Even the first section of the report dealing with whether there had been collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives linked to Vladimir Putin—which stated that the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”—did not constitute the win it had been portrayed as by Mr. Trump and his supporters.
A Putin Refutin’
For one thing, it made clear the insult the President delivered to his country’s intelligence network last July, standing alongside Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Finland, when he said he couldn’t credit the U.S. spy agencies’ unanimous conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election because the Russian President was “extremely strong and powerful in his denials.”
The Special Counsel stated that Russia’s Internet Research Agency five years ago launched a social-media campaign designed “to sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed ‘information warfare.’“ It went from a generalized program to undermine the U.S. electoral system to a targeted operation that by early 2016 “favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.”
At that point, the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU “began hacking the e-mail accounts of Clinton Campaign volunteers and employees, including campaign chairman John Podesta. In April 2016, the GRU hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).”
By June 2016, it continued, “the GRU began disseminating stolen materials through the fictitious online personas ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0.’ The GRU later released additional materials through the organization WikiLeaks.”
That June 9, a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin met in Trump Tower with a group that included then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. The meeting was brokered by a British music publicist who knew Donald Jr. and had sent him an e-mail promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Ignorance Was Bliss
The President’s first-born child replied: “if it’s what you say I love it!” He would later say that the meeting was a disappointing one because the Russian lawyer quickly shifted the conversation to a change in adoption policy. The Special Counsel found that it couldn’t be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the younger Trump or Mr. Kushner—said to be the brains of that generation of Trump Family men—were aware that they were breaking the law in meeting with a representative of a foreign power in hope of receiving damaging information about Ms. Clinton.
That was the basis, the report stated, for not criminally charging them in connection with that meeting, prompting Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank to quip, “Who says ignorance of the law is no excuse?”
Retired General Michael Flynn was less fortunate in another instance in which the elder Trump tried to throw reporters off the scent.
On Jan. 12, 2017, a week before Mr. Trump was sworn in, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Mr. Flynn had spoken with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak two weeks earlier after President Obama announced sanctions against Russia for its interference in the election, and questioned whether he had violated the Logan Act, which makes it a crime for any citizen not acting with the authority of the U.S. to deal with foreign governments on controversial issues.
Reince Priebus, whom Mr. Trump had designated to be his Chief of Staff, told the Special Counsel that Mr. Trump was angered by the column and indicated that Mr. Flynn needed to “kill the story.”
Mr. Flynn then called K.T. Mc Farland, who was to be his Deputy National Security Adviser, and ordered her to tell Mr. Ignatius that “no discussion of sanctions had occurred,” according to the report. The Post added that denial to the column.
The problem was that the General then made similar denials to administration officials, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and they all were guided by his claim in media interviews that they did. Mr. Flynn also stuck to his story in a Jan. 24, 2017 interview with FBI Agents.
Those Forgotten Details
In a Feb. 6 conversation with the President about his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak, General Flynn told him that “he might have talked about sanctions.” Six days later, when Mr. Trump asked whether he had lied to Mr. Pence, Mr. Flynn responded “that he may have forgotten details of his calls, but he did not think he lied,” he told investigators.
A day later, Mr. Priebus told Mr. Flynn that he would have to resign. The General met briefly with the President, who hugged him and said, “You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you.”
The following day, over lunch in the White House with Chris Christie, Mr. Trump said, “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over.” The former New Jersey Governor told investigators that he laughed at that remark and said, “No way,” because based on his experience as both a prosecutor and as a target of the probe into the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge, “firing Flynn would not end the investigation.”
Later that month, Mr. Trump told Mr. Priebus to have Ms. McFarland draft an e-mail confirming that the President had not directed General Flynn to call Ambassador Kislyak about the Obama-imposed sanctions. She told Mr. Priebus she could not do that because she didn’t know whether such a discussion had occurred. She would soon be removed from her job.
In early March, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided he had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because during his confirmation hearing in January, he failed to tell U.S. Senators about two meetings he had with Ambassador Kislyak, one during the campaign, the other after Mr. Trump had been elected. The President several times had White House Counsel Don McGahn prod him to reconsider, but according to Mr. McGahn’s testimony in December 2017 to investigators, “Sessions believed the decision to recuse was not a close call.”
‘Screamed About Sessions’
Steve Bannon, one of Mr. Trump’s key political advisers, later told investigators that when he learned his Attorney General would not reconsider, “the President was as mad as Bannon had ever seen him and that he screamed at McGahn about how weak Sessions was.”
On March 22, 2017, the report stated, “the President asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and CIA Director Michael Pompeo to stay behind in the Oval Office after a Presidential Daily Briefing. According to Coats, the President asked them whether they could say publicly that no link existed between him and Russia.”
Mr. Coats responded that his office had nothing to do with investigations “and it was not his role to make a public statement on the Russia investigation.” Mr. Pompeo told investigators he didn’t remember the conversation but “that the President regularly urged officials to get the word out that he had not done anything wrong related to Russia.”
Ultimately, Mr. Mueller concluded that while Mr. Trump and others in his campaign had reason to know that Russian operatives were trying to help his chances and hurt Ms. Clinton’s, there was no evidence proving that a conspiracy had occurred. “Among other things, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any Campaign official as an unregistered agent of the Russian government or other Russian principal. And our evidence about the June 9, 2016 meeting and WikiLeaks’s release of hacked materials was not sufficient to charge a criminal campaign-finance violation.”
But, the report noted, investigators “learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated—including some associated with the Trump Campaign—deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long-term retention of data or communications records.”
‘End of My Presidency’
The implication that some of those individuals believed they had something to hide was also reflected in Mr. Trump’s reaction on May 17, eight days after he fired FBI Director James Comey, to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mr. Mueller to continue the investigation as Special Counsel.
Jody Hunt, who was Mr. Sessions’s Chief of Staff, told investigators that the President “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f——-.’“
Mr. Trump went on to say that he had been told that a probe by an independent counsel “takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything,” a statement that could merely have reflected concern about it limiting his ability to pursue his agenda rather than an unforced admission that he was guilty of wrongdoing and now was likely to be found out. But his actions that followed were more indicative of a man needing a cover-up than someone who was merely frustrated by the Special Counsel’s impact in distracting from his running the country.
A month after Mr. Mueller was appointed, Mr. McGahn got a call at home from Mr. Trump in which he was ordered “to have the Special Counsel removed” based on purported conflicts of interest that Mr. McGahn and other advisers deemed “silly” and “not real.” During a subsequent call, Mr. McGahn told investigators, the President said, “Mueller has to go,” adding, “Call me back when you do it.”
Mr. McGahn was unwilling to fire the Special Counsel and decided that his only alternative was to resign. He was ultimately talked out of it by Mr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon after telling the Chief of Staff that Mr. Trump had asked him to “do crazy s—-.”
While the President disputed newspaper stories reporting that he had ordered Mr. Mueller’s firing, the report stated, “McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House.” It added that “during this time period, the President reached out to Christie to get his thoughts on firing the Special Counsel.”
Two days after Mr. Trump asked Mr. McGahn to instruct Mr. Rosenstein to fire Mr. Mueller, he met with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and urged him to direct Mr. Sessions to announce that he was rescinding his recusal from the Russia investigation because the President was “being treated very unfairly. He shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel [because] he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Only Probe the Future?
According to Mr. Lewandowski’s statement to investigators, Mr. Sessions was then supposed to announce that he was directing Mr. Mueller to turn his attention away from the 2016 election and focus solely on possible Russian interference in future elections.
The report stated, “The President’s effort to send Sessions a message through Lewandowski would qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry.”
But just as Mr. McGahn spared Mr. Trump from facing charges by not acting on his order to have Mr. Mueller fired, Mr. Lewandowski’s decision not to deliver the message to Mr. Sessions kept the President off the hook legally.
There was a moment of unintended humor when Mr. Trump asked Mr. McGahn why he told investigators about his order to fire Mr. Mueller. The President badgered the White House Counsel about why he had written down details of the conversation, saying, “I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
When Mr. McGahn responded that he did so because he was a “real lawyer” and that “notes create a record and are not a bad thing,” Mr. Trump replied, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”
Mr. Cohn was one of the shadier people admitted to the American bar. After serving as U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hatchet-man during his anti-Communist crusade in the early 1950s, he went on to represent Mafia bosses and the Brooklyn Democratic organization, whose longtime County Leader, Meade Esposito, had mob ties of his own. Mr. Cohn helped elect the Brooklyn organization’s candidate for Mayor, Abe Beame, in 1973 by improperly releasing Federal grand-jury testimony by a leading rival, U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi, that showed he had lied during the primary campaign when he denied taking the Fifth Amendment while testifying.
Confronted about the leak, Mr. Cohn replied, “It was Beame’s turn. It shouldn’t have been a problem.”
Lack of Ethics a Plus
Thirteen years later, he was disbarred after a state Appellate Division panel described his conduct in four cases as “unethical,” “unprofessional” and in one instance, “particularly reprehensible.” From Mr. Trump’s vantage point, this amounted to a character reference: he had used Mr. Cohn as his lawyer from the belief that he would do anything to protect his interests.
In the closing pages of the report, Mr. Mueller charted a path for Congress to pursue a case against Mr. Trump, stating that it “clearly has authority to protect its own legislative functions against corrupt efforts designed to impede legitimate fact-gathering and lawmaking efforts…And immunizing the President from the generally applicable criminal prohibition against corrupt obstruction of official proceedings would seriously impair Congress’s power to enact laws ‘to promote objectives within [its] constitutional authority…based on the analysis above, we were not persuaded by the argument that the President has blanket constitutional immunity to engage in acts that would corruptly obstruct justice through the exercise of otherwise-valid [presidential] powers.”
The issue for Democrats in the House of Representatives is not so much proving an impeachment case against the President but whether that would hurt the party in its efforts to defeat him in next year’s elections, since without significant Republican support in the Senate for removing him, the substantive impact of impeachment might be to help Mr. Trump politically.
That calculus threatens to overshadow some of the key takeaways of the Mueller Report beyond strong evidence that the President once in office engaged in obstruction of justice by encouraging officials to lie and dangling pardons to some. One was that campaign officials, as well as Mr. Trump, had reason to know of the Russian efforts on his behalf but did not report to the FBI this intrusion on an American election by a hostile foreign power. And the President’s refusal to accept the findings of the nation’s intelligence community about that interference based on Mr. Putin’s “strong denials” was just one piece of his attempt to diminish respect for those agencies because it served his political interests.
Mueller Worse Than Russia?
But chances of that occurring have been lessened by the subsequent spin by the confederacy of dunces who serve as surrogates for him.
Consider Rudy Giuliani, three days after the Mueller Report was released, saying on “Meet the Press” that in some instances it was acceptable for a political candidate to use information provided by a foreign government—”Depends on the stolen material”—and telling “Face the Nation,” “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.”
Or Jared Kushner, who minimized Russian interference as nothing more than “buying some Facebook ads to try and sow dissent” and declaring, “But I think the investigations and all the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has had a much-harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.”
“Great interview,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
No doubt Roy Cohn would have been proud.