Few minds will be changed with release of Mueller report

Not since the movie “Inception” has there been such disagreement over what people have just watched together. Call it “Perception.” Roughly 400 pages long, the report of special counsel Robert Mueller was eagerly devoured by millions after its release. That common interest, however, masked the fact that few minds will be changed by its content.

The report had something for everyone to reaffirm divergent views of Donald Trump, from presumed felon to putative victim. What is fascinating, however, is the sharp disconnect that emerges between his rhetoric and his conduct. Trump spent the last two years repeating a maddening mantra on a daily if not hourly basis: witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt. His tweets and comments represented much of what the special counsel investigated.

Trump came close to achieving the impossible feat of obstructing the investigation into a crime that did not, in fact, occur. That is no small feat. In the end, Mueller punted the issue by saying that whether these comments constitute a crime must turn on Trump’s intent, which could not be ascertained, particularly given Trump’s refusal to be interviewed by the special counsel staff. It is notable that Mueller repeatedly described Trump's motivation in noncriminal terms. Trump’s firing of Comey was clearly in response to his frustration with Comey refusing to state publicly what he was saying privately, which is that Trump was not a target of the investigation. Indeed, the special counsel found that Trump agreed that the Russian interference with the investigation, including any cooperating individuals, had to be fully investigated.

On some level, the indeterminacy of Mueller’s conclusions on obstruction was the penalty for Trump’s refusal to answer questions. However, the report establishes that there really was no serious basis for a criminal charge of obstruction. Indeed, there is something peevish in the refusal to reach an obvious conclusion.

The fact is that the report has precious little on obstruction that was not already known. The greatest damage that Trump did to himself was done in full view. However, once his rhetoric is stripped away, Trump’s actual conduct was not criminal, though it was at some point contemptible.

There seems little question that Trump wanted the investigation to end and, according to the report, wanted to fire key players in the investigation. But he didn’t. He did not fire anyone involved in the investigation. He did not destroy any evidence. He did not end the investigation prematurely. He took no actual obstructive acts. To charge him would have amounted to a virtual thought crime. Mueller did find “substantial evidence” that Trump wanted to limit the investigation by some of his actions. However, it also found that he did not do so. Trump had obstructive desires and even wanted to obstruct, but he didn’t obstruct.

What emerges from 400 color-coded pages and 10 investigative “episodes” is a Trump who was protected from himself by key advisers. It began with the single greatest blunder in modern presidential history: the firing of FBI Director James Comey. There was ample reason to fire Comey, who was denounced by career prosecutors and both Democratic and Republican leaders for his violation of core prosecutorial policies.

Trump could have fired Comey at the start of his administration or at the end of the Russian investigation. He just could not do it in the middle of the investigation. That is what the White House staff uniformly told him, with one exception: Jared Kushner. And that was enough. Trump fired Comey and instantly set his own administration on fire. An investigation that was winding down quickly metastasized into a spiraling inquiry with global reach.

After the Comey debacle, staffers quickly recognized that Trump was counterpunching himself into serious criminal jeopardy. That led to the most significant moment described in the Mueller report. Trump decided to take a step that would have made the moronic firing of Comey look brilliant in comparison: He ordered the firing of Mueller. At that point, staffers including White House Counsel Don McGahn turned themselves into a virtual human shield to protect Trump from himself. McGahn refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign. It was an extraordinary moment. In refusing repeated orders of a sitting president, McGahn actually said that he was coming to the White House to pack his things. Instead, and this is in Trump’s favor, the president kept him on and Mueller was not fired.

Had Trump gotten his wish, he well could have tripped the wire for obstruction or impeachment. He came that close. However, he didn’t. That is why this movie is so confusing to so many. The “Death Star” didn’t explode. The “Titanic” didn’t sink. The Trump didn’t obstruct. Despite his best efforts, Trump stayed just north of the criminal code. Of course, avoiding the indictable or the impeachable does not mean that some conduct was not contemptible.

Trump is worthy of condemnation for his conduct in seeking to end the investigation. It is clear from the report that Trump was, to some degree, saved from himself by staffers. It is an extraordinary moment for staffers to refuse a direct order from the president. Trump also instantly reminded voters how much of this was self-inflicted by tweeting a “Game of Thrones” image with the words: “Game Over.” The problem is that the report makes him look like Mad King Targaryen.

At the same time, there is one aspect of the report which is commendable and worthy of praise: Ultimately, Trump not only ordered senior staff to cooperate with Mueller but he did not withhold evidence and, most important, he waived executive privilege over the entirety of the report. That is an unprecedented degree of transparency. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Donald Trump is neither a felon nor blameless. Like much else in our politics, the rest is likely to be more rage than reason, as people reach their own conclusions.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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