Attorney General William Barr was right about one thing. Despite the extraordinary length of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, its conclusions about President Donald Trump can be stated simply. The problem for the attorney general, however, is that his summary bears little relation to the facts set out in the report.
Barr’s conclusions – no conspiracy, no obstruction — are effective as tweets, but as summaries of Mueller’s report, neither conclusion is intellectually honest.
Here is what the Mueller report really says: 1) Donald Trump and his campaign didn’t conspire with the Russians, because the Russians didn’t need them; and 2) if the president didn’t obstruct justice, it was because his advisers wouldn’t let him.
There it is, in Barr-like simplicity. The Russians didn’t need him; his advisers wouldn’t let him. Neither conclusion is flattering to the president. He is, as portrayed, ill-suited to lead the free world against an existential adversary. And the Mueller report makes it abundantly clear: That is what Russia has once again become.
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In any other era in American history, before news became just another form of entertainment, the Mueller team’s meticulous documentation of Russia’s efforts to exploit our freedoms in order to subvert them would be the highlight.
Even as partially revealed in the report, Russia’s efforts were systematic, thoroughgoing, and intended to make our form of government fail.
Acting either directly through Russian intelligence or through surrogates, Putin’s gangsters sabotaged American society by exploiting divisions. Some examples include:
Taken as a whole, those measures were a cyber invasion of our nation, an act of virtual war.
President Trump initially condemned not just the suspicions that he had conspired with the Russians but the very idea that the Russians had tried to undermine the election at all, as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax”; he even, recall, chose to believe Vladimir Putin over our own intelligence community when Putin assured him that there was no interference.
After the Mueller report, there is no room for equivocation. The president’s persistent unwillingness to treat the Putin regime as an embittered, emboldened, implacable adversary is baffling in light of the Mueller report’s incontrovertible evidence.
The next moves belong to Congress. There are unanswered questions relating to obstruction of justice that would be legitimate to pursue.
In my view, however, the dogged pursuit of that issue, with a view toward impeachment, would be a political blunder as egregious as the Republican impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s conduct, when revealed, was condemned across the board. By seeking to use it to remove him from office, however, the Republicans made it a partisan issue, and by doing so ensured his resurgence.
The portrait that emerges of President Trump in the Mueller report is of a deeply flawed, impulsive leader, a serial liar who, but for his staff, would have obstructed justice, and whose campaign didn’t conspire or coordinate with Russia only because the Russians didn’t need to do so to accomplish their goals.
Mueller’s account dovetails sufficiently with other aspects of the president’s history and character to form a compelling case for those who choose to see it: the tens of millions Trump paid to settle fraud claims against Trump University; the foundation money he used to pay for his own portrait; the hush money paid to a former porn star and a former Playboy bunny to buy their silence; the 16 women he announced with great fanfare that he would sue (and never has) after they accused him of offensive conduct; the serial bankruptcies; the efforts even while a candidate to do business in Moscow; the well-documented lies throughout his adult life about everything from the heel-spur deferment that kept him out of the Vietnam-era draft to his telephone impersonations of a guy who promoted this great guy he knew named Trump.
Congress should move forward. Its principal focus should be to examine whether our policy toward Russia has taken adequate account of the aggression revealed by the Mueller report; it should be guided by our nation’s long-standing commitment, in the words of President John Kennedy, to “pay any price, to bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Our policy toward Russia should treat Putin’s empire as the implacable adversary it has become. That, not impeaching the president, should be the Mueller report’s legacy.