Analysis: Mueller Report Confirms No Collusion, Finds Aborted Obstruction Attempts, Punts on Charges

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Posted: Apr 18, 2019 2:45 PM
Analysis: Mueller Report Confirms No Collusion, Finds Aborted Obstruction Attempts, Punts on Charges

The relatively lightly-redacted Mueller report is now public, and its contents will be discussed and debated for some time.  In terms of bottom lines, Attorney General Barr's original summary letter hit the nail on the head: The Russian government inarguably interfered in the 2016 US election, no coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign (or any Americans) on these efforts has been established, and the Special Counsel's office declined to come down one way or another on the secondary question of obstruction of justice.  As expected, the full report is a vindication of the president on the crucial issue of "collusion," but the obstruction component is far less flattering.  Let's start with Mueller's definitions of terms related to the 'no collusion' conclusion:


The president, the media, and the Democrats have all used "collusion" as a form of shorthand, but Mueller was specifically charged with looking into whether Trumpworld conspired (a legal term) or coordinated (a vaguer term with a broader definition) with the Russian election meddling. He wrote that his investigation "did not identify evidence that any US persons conspired or coordinated with" Russia's campaign of social media disruption (designed to provoke internal conflict and division), and did not establish any coordination on Moscow's various election-related hacking projects. As for Team Trump's myriad contacts with Russians that we've heard and read so much about, this is how the Special Counsel's report describes them:


On the fundamental predicate from which the rest of this drama flowed -- collusion -- the president is exonerated.  On obstruction of justice, Mueller's team takes a decidedly more jaundiced view of the president's actions. A key flashpoint in the relevant timeline was the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which the president had full authority to do under the law. Why was Comey fired? The 'official' (and largely false) White House spin was that Comey had mishandled the Hillary Clinton email probe, but the real driving factor was Trump's seething anger at Comey's unwillingness to state publicly what Comey had assured the president in private on several occasions: The president himself was not under investigation. Trump very obviously became convinced that (a) 'collusion' was a bogus narrative (he was correct), and (b) Comey was being two-faced and playing games on this question, which needlessly contributed to the cloud hanging over his presidency (very arguably accurate). So he fired Comey -- and according to Mueller's investigation, he wanted the conflict over Comey's assurances to be included in the termination letter. It wasn't, and one wonders if Trump could have saved himself a lot of headaches by simply being bluntly honest on the true rationale behind this consequential decision.  Mueller describes this as the first phase of the obstruction question.

The second phase came after reports emerged that the Special Counsel's probe was looking into obstruction of justice. During this period, Trump issued periodic private demands ranging from Jeff Sessions un-recusing himself, to limiting the scope of the investigation, to not cooperating with document requests, to curtailing or even dismissing the Special Counsel. Several of the episodes laid out in the report point to an angry, impulsive, frustrated president lashing out at an investigation that he believed to be a baseless seek-and-destroy mission against him. Each time the situation reached a boiling point, more restrained and circumspect elements within the administration prevailed, declining to act on the president's wishes and allowing the near-crises to abate and pass. Each time, the president ultimately backed away, and the probe continued unimpeded, to its conclusion. This does not necessarily paint a confidence-inspiring portrait of a sober-minded and reflective president handling adversity appropriately or steadily. Indeed, it is the most serious political (and near-legal) indictment contained in the whole document.

The counterpoint to this criticism is that in light of the fundamental 'no collusion' truth, and Comey's apparent duplicity, the president's resentments and deep suspicions were, in fact, justified in very significant ways.  Yes, it looks undeniable that at certain points along the way, Trump's instinct was to neuter, diminish or shut down what he obviously and genuinely believed to be a "witch hunt" against him.  But that belief is a major reason why Mueller apparently decided against making a determination in either direction on obstruction of justice:


It seems to me that Mueller believes Trump acted inappropriately, and potentially illegally, but there are countervailing factors that muddy the waters on intent.  Because there were plausible non-corrupt motives at play (ego, concerns over public perceptions of legitimacy, ire at Comey, etc), Mueller did not feel comfortable pulling the trigger on recommending charges, but simultaneously wanted to spell out explicitly that this conclusion does not constitute an "exoneration" of Trump's actions (as Barr had originally warned would be the case).  He even wrote that if his team felt confident that that had clear evidence that Trump had not pursued obstruction, they would say so.  They did not say so.  It's also worth noting that Mueller asserted that he chose not to subpoena Trump himself for an in-person interview, adding that he believed he had that authority.  He did not exercise it.  Having felt freshly relieved and satisfied by the 'no coordination or conspiracy' side of the report, I came away from the obstruction of justice portion with this general sentiment:


The President of the United States was legitimately and duly elected.  His team did not coordinate with a hostile foreign power to tip the election.  This is good news.  Many of the people grousing about the Attorney General's use of the term "no collusion" -- after years of the press and Democrats incessantly speculating about "collusion" -- very much appear to be upset over the finding of no collusion.  That level of personal emotional investment in an untrue and country-undermining theory underscores the depths to which partisan tribalism can sink.  When the commentariat and his opponents kept beating the drum on collusion, Trump's prodigious ego reacted viscerally and volcanically to the suggestion that he'd somehow cheated his way to victory, with some even hinting or outright stating that he was a traitor.  When he subsequently concluded that the FBI Director was contributing to this unsupported slander, Trump fired him, instantly triggering accusations from critics that he'd done so for corrupt reasons.  He hadn't, it turns out, but his White House's decision to run with a weak cover story undermined their credibility.  

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As the investigation turned to obstruction, Trump raged against those whom he felt were determined to take him down via non-existent "collusion."  This rage, albeit understandable and righteous in many respects, was occasionally channeled in unproductive and even self-destructive ways.  The president was saved from his worst instincts by people around him.  Again, that is not a positive commentary on his temperament or suitability for high office.  But the way that everything has played out, it was also not a crime.  As far as I'm concerned, the legal issue here is now settled.  If Democrats want to harp on attempted or aborted obstruction attempts for the next year-plus, that's their prerogative, but I think that would be a political mistake.  We've ended up with a thorough report from a gold standard investigator.  Despite serious flare-ups and near-disasters along the way, we now have the results of an unimpeded investigation, which the White House has not attempted to redact or censor in any way.  I look forward to the upcoming testimony of the Attorney General, and endorse his comment welcoming sworn testimony from Mueller, as well.

My bottom line: The president and his campaign did not collude with Russia.  Legally, he is in the clear.  Politically, his opponents have decisions to make about how much longer they want to flog the 'attempted obstruction' issue.  And the American people can determine for themselves whether Trump should be punished at the ballot box for his impetuousness and comportment -- or, relatedly, whether his opponents should face electoral consequences for perpetuating a meritless "collusion" narrative for more than two years.  Finally, we may soon know more about whether or not abuses took place at the hands of Trump's tormentors during critical stages of the counterintelligence investigation that finally wrapped up last month.  Let the shouting begin.

UPDATE - The more I reflect on the report, the more I circle back to this idea: Often times, Trump is his own worst enemy -- and his worst enemies are his best friends.  If not for his habitual lying and erratic, chaotic behavior,  the president's firing of Comey may not have been as controversial as it was.  His real reason was sound, but the White House told a different story.  And if not for their relentless, over-hyped fixation on this story, today's report may feel more damning than it does.  But they chanted 'collusion' and even 'treason' for two years.  Instead, we're discussing the lack of intent behind an unproveable process crime.