As I suspect is true of most that read these pages, I have read Attorney General William Barr’s advice to Congress regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Elections.” Assuming that the Attorney General is reporting accurately (which I think can be assumed, if for no other reason than large parts or all of the Report will, in some way or other, ultimately be made public), Mr. Mueller’s Report provides:
- A reaffirmation that the Russian Government sought to influence the 2016 election through (1) “disinformation and social media operations … designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election” and (2) “computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election … including [through] Wikileaks.”
- That the Special Counsel’s investigation “did not establish” that the Trump Campaign “conspired or coordinated” – expressly or tacitly – “with the Russian government in its interference activities.” (Given this finding, it is understandable that no indictments have been issued against Messrs. Donald Trump, Jr., or Jared Kushner.)
- That the Special Counsel elected not to make a traditional prosecutorial decision regarding any obstruction of justice by President Trump, instead listing incriminating and exonerating evidence related to the suitability of such charges. Mr. Barr did note the Special Counsel’s statement, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Mr. Barr stated that given Mr. Mueller’s failure to reach a conclusion regarding obstruction of justice charges against Mr. Trump, it was for Mr. Barr himself, as Attorney General, to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to establish that the President had obstructed justice, and further indicated that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (no fan of Mr. Trump) concluded that the grounds to proceed were insufficient.
(Given the seemingly oddly circumspect approach that the Special Counsel took to addressing the obstruction of justice issues – and in admittedly the type of pure speculation that I generally try to avoid in these notes — one might wonder whether the final weeks’ delay in the issuance of the Special Counsel report following Mr. Barr’s confirmation as Attorney General arose from a decision to significantly recast the Report’s obstruction of justice sections; Mr. Mueller is obviously acutely aware that Mr. Barr, in his lengthy memo that constituted a de facto application for the A.G. position, had challenged the premise that a President, absent evidence of illegal collusion, could be found guilty of obstruction of justice, due to an allegedly “improper motive,” for performing what Mr. Barr called “facially-lawful” acts. It would be interesting to see copies of Report drafts existing before Mr. Barr was nominated.)
Since I am no fan of President Trump, in the last weeks I have wondered whether I would feel a bit despondent if Mr. Mueller’s team failed to uncover sufficiently incriminating evidence to indict Mr. Trump (even if such indictment wasn’t sought, due to Department of Justice guidelines) and his family members; but I don’t. If we have learned anything during the Trump presidency, it’s that having honesty in government, having procedures that don’t predetermine a result, is what matters. The strength, rigor, and fairness of our processes is what separates us from Russia, China, and much of the rest of the world – allies and adversaries alike. Despite the unwarranted and despicable personal attacks on the Special Counsel by Mr. Trump and his cohort, Mr. Mueller demonstrated why he is widely acclaimed for his integrity, competence, courage, and thoroughness. No one can credibly claim that the Mueller Team was biased for or against the President. It was never a “Witch Hunt.” The system worked.
I would suggest that there are at least two benefits arising from this result that should encourage even the President’s harshest critics. First, the entire process – to employ what has admittedly become an overused phrase – moved the goalposts regarding the public’s understanding of Russian meddling in our elections. Two years ago, the President scoffed at the notion of Russian meddling, concerned that it would undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. As the threat of an election-related criminal prosecution seemingly loomed against himself and his family, he became less focused on defending the sanctity of his victory and more focused on disclaiming any relationship with Russian actors. At this point, the fact that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf is seemingly accepted (albeit grudgingly in some quarters) across the political spectrum. Perhaps now, on the eve of the next election, Republicans if not Mr. Trump himself will collaborate more enthusiastically with Democrats to shore up our electoral processes. The President clearly isn’t going anywhere during the next two years; the key is to do what we can to limit the extent to which our people are manipulated by malign foreign actors in the next election.
Second, although a number of Democrats and liberal pundits are now undoubtedly licking their wounds, I suspect that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is to some extent relieved by the outcome. Absent “smoking gun” evidence demonstrating that Mr. Trump had consciously colluded with Russia or sought to obstruct justice, there has never been a chance that the President’s opponents would muster 20 Senate Republican votes (even assuming all Senate Democrats stayed in line) to remove him from office; any attempt at impeachment would have yet further roiled the country and very likely resulted in an embarrassing defeat and attendant backlash much closer to the 2020 election – a result that would have significantly enhanced Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects.
That said, I would like to see the entire Mueller Report; I would wager that most other Americans would as well; but although there will undoubtedly be sections that Democrats will pounce upon to demonstrate untoward behavior by the President and his associates, I hope that liberals don’t expend undue energy on pointless quibbling. Aside from using the fruits of the Special Counsel investigation to gather Republican support to enact measures and controls to better guard against foreign meddling in the next election, it’s time to move on.