In the library, holding a candlestick
So the Mueller report has finally been delivered, not to Congress but, as protocol dictates, to the Attorney General, William Barr, appointed by Trump. He in turn crafted a four-page summary with his conclusions, which was more a press release than a neutral cover letter.
He has indicated that he and others will redact the report of grand jury testimony and classified information and within weeks send it to Congress. Thus far little is known about its conclusions (or the underlying evidence) regarding “collusion” or “obstruction of justice,” other than Barr’s opinion there was neither. Barr did include a truncated and opaque sentence by Mueller that with regard to obstruction, Trump could not be exonerated.
So now we find ourselves in this moment of not knowing what we don’t know other than what we are told by a political appointee, who, last June submitted to the White House a 19 page memorandum in which he denigrates the Mueller investigation while arguing that a sitting president cannot be charged with obstruction if there is no underlying crime. A statement that takes us far into the legal weeds and one I don’t fully understand.
But let’s pause and explore the mantra proffered by Trump at every opportunity: “There was no collusion.” Embedded in that declarative sentence is the assumption that the Russians made a blatant effort to undermine our nation’s 2016 election and therefore our democracy using social media, online ads, organized US rallies while denigrating the campaign of Hillary Clinton. That then raises the question: why have Trump and congressional Republicans not used our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to craft an aggressive response to what is, in effect, cyber warfare?
Trump’s reaction to Putin and his weaponized trolls has been one of startling passivity wherein he actually believes Putin instead of his own intelligence people (recall Helsinki). This consistent and yet incongruous effort to avoid holding Russia accountable for its egregious behavior then raises a second and eminently reasonable question: was Trump a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian government? In other words, has he been compromised in some fashion personally or financially?
Recall the multi-million dollar real estate deal for Trump Tower in Moscow, which he was negotiating during the campaign. Clearly, if there is a national emergency, it’s not taking place on the southern border; it’s that the Russians are already preparing to insert their trolls into the 2020 election and doing so with impunity.
Now consider that as a result of Mueller’s investigation 34 people have been indicted or pleaded guilty; 26 were Russian nationals, plus three Russian companies; and of the six former Trump advisors indicted, five have pleaded guilty, some have already been jailed and others await sentencing. Also in play is the fact that the Trump campaign associates and advisers had more than 100 direct contacts with Russians during the campaign. In effect, the Trump campaign was neck-deep in Russians.
I accept Mueller’s judgment that Trump et al. did not collude with a foreign power. And what seemed an obvious quid pro quo (Russia helps elect Trump; in return sanctions are lifted) did not rise to the level of criminal conspiracy. As for obstruction, well, we’ll have to wait for the full report to be released. And that may require a pitched battle by the Democrats — Trump’s “total exoneration” echoes.
I do admit that I was convinced that the Mueller report would state unequivocally that there was collusion. I understand that such a conclusion would create chaos for the nation given that a sitting president cannot be indicted. I also admit that I nurtured an image of Trump in the library holding a candlestick. Or in a jumpsuit the same color as his hair.
But there is a moral/ethical dimension to this presidency that frames all hoped-for outcomes. More about that in Part 2.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.