The special counsel’s report reveals a pattern of deceit and dysfunction. What comes next is up to Congress.
President Trump at the White House on Thursday.Erin Schaff/The New York Times
So much for “complete and total exoneration.”
To the contrary, it turns out that Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and investigators found “substantial evidence” that President Trump broke federal law on numerous occasions by attempting to shut down or interfere with the nearly-two-year Russia investigation.
In addition to pointing to possible criminality, the report revealed a White House riddled with dysfunction and distrust, one in which Mr. Trump and his aides lie with contempt for one another and the public. Some of the president’s efforts to interfere with the investigation failed, the report concluded, only because “the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Put another way, Mr. Trump may survive, thanks to advisers who chose to refuse or simply ignore his demands to do what the former White House counsel Donald McGahn at one point referred to as “crazy shit.”
Mr. Trump — referred to repeatedly by aides as “the boss” — is shown as so attentive to covering his tracks that at one point he scolds Mr. McGahn for taking notes during a meeting. “I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Mr. Trump is quoted as saying. Mr. McGahn responded that he was a “real lawyer.”
With the public release of a redacted version of the special counsel’s report on Thursday, Americans also at last got a clear answer for a central question raised by the terse — and now clearly misleading — summary offered four weeks ago by Attorney General William Barr: Why did Mr. Mueller decide not to make a finding about whether President Trump obstructed justice?
“We determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the president committed crimes,” the report explains, because “fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought.”
In other words, Mr. Mueller felt his hands were tied. Longstanding Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, and it isn’t fair to make accusations without giving the president a legal forum in which to respond.
A bit further on, the 448-page report says, “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.”
So what now? Although Mr. Mueller was unable to bring criminal charges against the president himself, his report lays a foundation for investigation by Congress, which has the authority and the responsibility to check the executive branch and hold the president accountable. “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report states.
It is up to Congress to decide whether the behavior described in this report meets an acceptable standard for the country’s chief executive.
In order to adequately conduct such an investigation, Congress must have access to a fully uncensored version of the report and all its underlying materials. Congressional leaders are right to subpoena the full report, as the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, said he would do on Thursday.
The public also has a right to hear Mr. Mueller testify before Congress at the earliest opportunity.
Descriptions in the public version of the report of the ways in which the president used, and abused, his powers challenge the dignity of the presidency and the free and fair function of the justice system. The special counsel investigated 11 incidents in which the president may have obstructed justice, the same offense facing Richard Nixon during Watergate and Bill Clinton during his impeachment.
The report notes that the president engaged in “public attacks on the investigation, nonpublic efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.” That the president’s norm-shattering behavior has become so flagrant and familiar doesn’t make it right.
Little wonder that Mr. Trump, when notified that a special counsel had been appointed to scrutinize his behavior, reportedly slumped in his chair and said: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
In addition to indicting, convicting or securing guilty pleas from 34 people, the special counsel’s office made 14 referrals for further investigation of potential criminal activity outside the purview of the investigation’s mandate. Twelve of those referrals remain secret.
The report is more definitive when it comes to the extensive interference by Russian spies and hackers in the 2016 election, a campaign of disruption it calls “sweeping and systematic.”
Mr. Mueller’s investigation found that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Mr. Mueller was not able in the end to establish definitive coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
At the same time, large sections of the report, apparently regarding dealings between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, have been blacked out. Mr. Barr said Thursday that any such coordination between the website and the campaign wouldn’t be criminal. Congress and the American people deserve to know what happened nonetheless.
If the report — and the entire saga around the Russia investigation — has one through-line, it is the dishonesty at the heart of the Trump administration. The president told Mr. McGahn to lie to reporters about Mr. Trump’s attempt to fire the special prosecutor. The press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made up from whole cloth the notion that “rank-and-file F.B.I. agents had lost confidence” in the ousted director, James Comey. Half a dozen people connected with the Mueller investigation have been formally charged with — or pleaded guilty to — lying to investigators.
Then on Thursday, just before the report was made public, the attorney general tarnished himself and undermined the integrity of his office by dissembling about what the report said.
By contrast, the special prosecutor’s report illustrates again and again that, despite Mr. Trump’s constant cries of “fake news,” the responsible news media’s reporting on the investigation was overwhelmingly accurate.
Mr. Mueller may have thought he couldn’t indict a president in the legal sense of the term, but he has delivered a devastating description of Mr. Trump’s attempts to abuse his powers and corrupt his aides. This report, even in its censored format, is an important step toward putting the truth of this presidency in the public record. But there’s still a long way to go before it can be said that justice has been done.
More from Opinion on the Mueller report.