Special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence linking President Donald Trump to any crimes involving Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. election. And he declined to prosecute Trump for obstructing justice or interfering with prosecutors investigating the Russian interference.
But the 448-page Mueller report contains numerous damning details of Trump asking subordinates to obstruct justice on his behalf, condoning other people’s crimes, covering up facts, telling people to lie and lying himself. Trump may avoid prosecution, but critics will feast for years on the mendacity Mueller revealed. Even some Trump supporters may question their fealty to a president now revealed to operate like a mob boss, except with poorer judgment.
Anybody interested in Mueller’s findings should read the report for themselves. It’s a complicated document with threads that partisans can spin almost any way they want. And the overarching narrative is confounding, because Trump repeatedly sought ways to quash an investigation into a crime he apparently didn’t commit. Trump acted guilty of something Mueller himself found no evidence of.
It’s good news that the Trump campaign did not work deliberately with Russia during the 2016 election. Yet, there were numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and representatives of Russia, with nobody from the campaign ever thinking to tell the FBI about them. Maybe Trump acted guilty because he realized at some point that his campaign’s contacts with Russia were fishy, at a minimum, and might look a lot worse than that to a zealous prosecutor.
Trump’s guilty behavior
How did Trump act guilty? Some of his paranoia was on public display, through the recurring “witch hunt” tweets and statements meant to discredit the Mueller investigation before we knew anything about its findings. And Trump seemed to publicly threaten witnesses such as Michael Cohen, who might testify against him.
Trump went much further than that, as the Mueller report now reveals. On June 14, 2017, according to the Mueller report, Trump called White House Counsel Donald McGahn and told him to have Justice Department leadership fire Mueller — which probably would have been obstruction of justice. McGahn declined to do that, one of several times people around Trump prevented overt crimes from happening. “The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” the Mueller report states, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
After McGahn refused to have Mueller fired, Trump tried to have former campaign aide Corey Lewandowski pass a message to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions about Mueller. Trump wanted Sessions to publicly exonerate him of any crimes, and to limit the Mueller investigation so it excluded investigation into Trump’s personal behavior. Lewandowsky didn’t want to deliver the message and tried to get a White House advisor to do it. Neither delivered the message to Sessions, who apparently never got it.
In June 2017, news organizations began to learn of the now-notorious meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, between representatives of the Russian government and Trump campaign officials, including Trump’s son Don, Jr. That meeting was about compromising information Russia had obtained on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s general-election opponent, which Russia offered to share with the Trump campaign. But once news of that meeting broke a year later, Trump told press aids to lie to news organizations, saying the meeting was really about policies toward adopting Russian babies.
“Each of these efforts by the President involved his communication team and was directed at the press,” the Mueller report found. “They would amount to obstructive acts only if the President, by taking those actions, sought to withhold information from or mislead congressional investigators of the Special Counsel.” Lying to the media, in other words, isn’t a crime, so Trump is off the hook on that one, too.
In January 2018, press reports recounted Trump’s effort to have McGahn get Mueller fired seven months earlier. That story was accurate, but Trump, through a personal lawyer, asked McGahn to put out a statement denying what had, in fact, taken place. Trump, in other words, asked McGahn to lie, so Trump wouldn’t look bad. McGahn refused.
‘President knew Cohen provided false testimony’
It’s also not a crime, evidently, if you knowingly let somebody else commit perjury on your behalf. Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pled guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s pursuit of a real-estate project in Russia, saying the project ended by January 2016 when in fact it continued until at least June 2016. Cohen told Congress earlier this year that Trump knew Cohen would be lying and did nothing to discourage him.
The Mueller report corroborates that. “There is evidence … that the President knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project,” the Mueller report said. But “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen's false testimony.”
Once Cohen began cooperating with prosecutors, Trump publicly called Cohen a “rat” and made what sounded like veiled threats of government legal action against his family. Obstruction? Here’s what Mueller found: “The President's statements insinuating that members of Cohen's family committed crimes after Cohen began cooperating with the government could be viewed as an effort to retaliate against Cohen and chill further testimony adverse to the President by Cohen or others.” There’s some evidence of a crime, in other words. Yet, Mueller still felt this didn’t reach the threshold required for prosecution.
There are many more examples in the Mueller report of Trump behaving in ways that might sound illegal to ordinary people, but don’t rise to what seems to be a very high Justice Department bar for prosecuting the president. Partisans, pundits, legal experts and historians will debate Mueller’s findings for a long time, and voters will of course get to render their own judgment once the 2020 election finally rolls around.
At a simpler level, however, the Mueller report reveals behavior many Americans would not normally tolerate in business executives, educators, religious leaders, local politicians or their own family members. Trump may not have committed crimes he can be prosecuted for. But he came damn close, and another prosecutor might have been less deferential. No wonder Trump tried to kill the Mueller investigation.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman