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the report

Trump Sours on Mueller Report After Its Details Paint a Darker Picture

The Mueller report is finally out but unsurprisingly it has resolved little between proponents and opponents of the Trump presidency. Each camp has taken away what it hoped to find, and like the War of the Roses, the discord promises to drag on interminably.

Essentially, the president and those on the right hold to the top line — no collusion
Robert Mueller
and a questionable claim of no obstruction — whereas the left burrowed into the details and found a president and an administration guilty of appalling conduct.

Almost lost in the heated exchanges across the media was the indisputable proof in the report that the Russians had waged a dismayingly successful campaign of interfering with the 2016 elections. But we already knew that. Not the president, however. Mr. Trump has never acceded that the Russians meddled, saying alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, "I don't see why they would". He believes acknowledgement threatens the legitimacy of his election. The report quotes his former aide, Hope Hicks, saying that is his "Achilles heel".

a low barr

Given the multiple categories for redaction outlined by Attorney General William Barr, it was a relief that less than expected was blacked out, and that he kept his pledge to deliver not just to Congress but the public. On Fox News, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist thought that Barr "did a remarkably good job of just laying out the facts".

But even at that network, others such as former prosecutor Bob Bianchi, said, "I felt he was trying to be a cheerleader for the president". Barr had stepped in front of the report's release in an introduction dubbed a "pre-spin" in which he colored Mueller's opus favorably to the president's benefit, repeating "no collusion" (not a legal word) four times. In the four-page letter of three weeks previous,

Barr had said the report would present evidence on both sides of the obstruction question. That proved false. All of the evidence is on the side of obstructive conduct. Before the cameras he now said:

"President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. There was relentless speculation in the news media about the president's personal culpability. There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks."

The president's frustration and anger appears nowhere in the report. He had refused to be interviewed by the Mueller team where he could have made that case, so this was simply William Barr's gratuitous attempt to explain away the president's obstructive acts.

Trump's volte-face

Just as we wrote when the president went with "complete and total exoneration" the moment Barr's four-page letter came out, only to become apprehensive when notions began circulating that the Mueller report was hundreds of pages long, the same cycle repeated with the release of the report itself. Trump went with Barr's repetitions of "no collusion" in his press conference, but then the president who famously reads nothing longer than a page, turned angry when he heard of the deeply unflattering characterization of his administration in the text itself. Save for it being the deplorable conduct of a president of the United States, his tweet tirade upon discovering his error was rather comical. Sample:



…and so on, tweeting that some of the statements made about him were "total bullshit" and that the Mueller investigation, which just a day or two before he thought had vindicated him, "was an Illegally Started Hoax that never should have happened". The three part tweet ended with calling the investigators "some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even Spying or Treason". (The capitalization is his).

No collusion, but close

The first section of the report covers Russian hacking of e-mails, their attempts to break into state election systems (successfully breaking into the voting records of one Florida county), and their social media campaign — all designed to influence and disrupt the 2016 elections. Mueller and cohort found no instances where the Trump campaign or transition had coordinated with what has been called an incredibly successful assault on the U.S. by the Russian Federation without firing a shot. The report outlines a campaign far too vast not to have had the effect of helping Trump capture the presidency.

But while no connective tissue was found, much came close. Items:

 The campaign didn't itself hack into the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) nor campaign chairman John Podesta's e-mails, but their defense that they only distributed what the Russians had dug up for them is corrupt.

 The special counsel verifies that Konstantin Kilimnik is assessed "to have ties to Russian intelligence", so when Paul Manafort, while Trump's campaign manager, "had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time", how is that not collusion? That data was not what we are accustomed to seeing — just Trump x.x% vs. Clinton y.y%. It would have been scores of tables by state and election district, precisely what Russia was looking for in targeting its election interference. If the defense is that perhaps Manafort was freelancing his way out of debt to a Russian oligarch, Trump is nevertheless responsible for bringing on board a character with such shady dealings with Russian and Ukranian contacts.

 How did Roger Stone know in advance there would be a Wikileak dump of DNC e-mails? Why, on a drive to New York's LaGuardia Airport, was candidate Trump, after taking a phone call, able to tell Manafort sidekick Rick Gates that more releases of damaging material would be coming? Trump's fixer Michael Cohen says the same, that an overheard phone call in Trump Tower was about advanced notice that more would be released by Wikileaks.

 The investigation "did not establish that one Campaign official’s efforts [again presumably Manafort] to dilute a portion of the Republican Party platform on providing assistance to Ukraine were undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia". But the dilution did happen.

 Gen. Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI (a felony), denying that before Trump took office his meeting with the Soviet ambassador about eliminating sanctions against Russia just imposed by President Barack Obama for interfering in the U.S. elections.

 Trump said that his "Russia if you're listening" call for them to search for an alleged 30,000 missing Hillary Clinton e-mails was a joke, but five hours later, Russia's "GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office", says the report.

 And then of course there was the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign principals and a Russian lawyer associated with Russia's chief prosecutor who had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton to offer, to which Donald Jr. replied, "I love it, especially late in the summer", followed late in the summer by the Wikileaks drops.

 What explains why Eric Prince, brother of the secretary of education and founder of the notorious mercenaries-for-hire firm Blackwater, had to go to the Seychelle islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean — as did Jared Kushner as well — to meet with the head of Russia's sovereign fund, a connection that is one of the more heavily redacted sections of the report.

On the right, we wouldn't hear these stories. Instead, as Fox reporter Katherine Herridge elucidated, it was Russia that made an aggressive outreach to the campaign and transition, and only to compromise its principals. She and others on the right made no mention "that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts", as the Mueller report found, nor was there mention of the eagerness of the Trump team to engage in acquiring "dirt". That's fair enough, though, considering that Donald Jr.'s attempt would be far surpassed on the other side a month or so later by the exposure of the Clinton campaign's financing of the unverified dirt of Christopher Steele's dossier, mention of which is curiously absent from the Mueller report save for cursory mentions.

Still, what accounts for all the lying, some of which landed Trump figures in prison? Wasn't that food for suspicion and investigation? And the outburst by Trump when told by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that a special counsel had been appointed in the wake of Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey:

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked."

That's not what we'd expect an innocent man would say. Trump's made himself look guilty with his constant insistence of "no collusion" for months on end, as did his requests to his intelligence chiefs — ignored by them — to put out press statements saying there was no collusion. That none was found, and that the president squeezed under the high bar of criminality, does not mean that the Trump team wasn't flirting with collusion. Nor have we seen any movement from the Trump administration to prevent Russian interference in 2020. In all, Section 1 paints a damning portrait of the Trump presidency.

If This Isn't Obstruction, Nothing Is

Section 2, on obstruction, is the longer part of the report. The Mueller team lists 10 instances. A few of the most notable:

 The firing of FBI Director James Comey. Trump supporters insist the president has the unencumbered right to hire and fire at will, but reaching past the attorney general to fire the FBI chief is unprecedented. The point they skirt was the president's intent, that he expected to end the investigation by firing Comey, revealed the following day when he told two Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that he had "faced great pressure because of Russia,” which had been “taken off” by Comey’s firing, and on the day after that in a television interview he had “decided to just do it,” that “this thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”. Mueller's sense is that Trump was worried because "the evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes".

 Mueller covers at length Trump's twice calling White House counsel Don McGahn to tell him "Mueller has to go", that McGahn is to set in motion his firing, and to "call me back when you do it". Chris Wallace at Fox says this abrupt attempt coincides with the first instance of a news report saying Trump had obstructed justice. McGahn refused and threatened to resign rather than take part in what he called another Saturday Night Massacre, referring to Nixon's firing of the special prosecutor in the Nixon scandal. Rather than "do crazy shit" for Trump, McGahn effectively saved the president from himself.

 The report lists a number of such instances where Trump was kept out of trouble by staff declining to follow his orders, knowing them to be illegal or inadvisable. He demanded that his first Chief of Staff Reince Priebus procure Session's resignation; Priebus did not follow through. Trump wanted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a news conference to say that it was his initiative to have Comey fired. Rosenstein would not comply. He had written a letter (to his subsequent regret, he said) justifying Comey's firing over mishandling the Clinton e-mail probe, but the letter was at Trump's request.

 The president even told McGahn to deny media reports that Trump told him to fire Mueller.

 The president "on at least three occasions" directed the staff to keep secret the June 9th, 2016, meeting with the Russian attorney. Once it was exposed by The New York Times, Trump dictated a false statement for Donald Trump Jr. to issue that described the meeting as about adoption of Russian children.

 Trump asked several in the intelligence community that he has broadly vilified to say publicly that no link existed between him and Russia. He asked Mike Pompeo, then CIA director, to do so and pressured Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats repeatedly about the investigation, asking if Coats could "do something to stop it". When Coats made it clear that he would not get involved with an ongoing FBI investigation, the president called NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers asking if he would verify to the media that stories linking Trump with Russia were not true. Rogers' deputy director, Richard Ledgett, who was present for the call, said it was "the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service". As people who take so-called 'notes'" who Trump says we should "watch out for", the two wrote a memorandum and stored it in a safe.

Finally, while not obstruction, it was gratifying to see White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders having to confess to Mueller that she lied about "countless" FBI staff voicing to the White House their appreciation for James Comey's firing and that her statement "that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made 'in the heat of the moment that was not founded on anything'". (Picture FBI agents calling the White House to thank Trump if you can). Finally, the highly principled Sanders, has since gone on Fox News to resume lying about her lie.

cooperation

In announcing the report's release, Barr said that the president and "the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims". Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow on Sean Hannity's program said that 1.4 million documents had been turned over. The Trump legal team issued a statement saying, "Nothing withheld; nothing concealed; nothing deleted; nothing destroyed; and nothing bleached".

Well and good. Not mentioned, though, was a major exception: for a year Rudy Giuliani had forestalled any prospect that Trump would testify before the special counsel. Mueller elected not to issue a subpoena for reasons he will have to explain to Congress. In place of testimony, the president answered questions in writing, unquestionably written by his lawyers. Despite his claims that he has “one of the great memories of all time” or even “the world’s greatest memory”, Trump more than 30 times would answer “I do not remember”, “I do not recall”, “I have no recollection”, “I have no independent recollection”, “I have no current recollection”. Written answers and Trump's refusal to reply to further questions about those answers disabled Mueller from getting at intent, the important criterion for obstruction, and straight-arming Mueller is the cherry-on-top success of Giuliani and Trump's legal team. It left Mueller ending with a whimper, complaining of answers that are "incomplete or imprecise", and turning the mess of potage over to Congress.

never again



President Trump is now tweeting, and Fox has taken up the theme, that the Mueller investigation "never should have happened" and "should never happen again". We don't hear from them that 12 Russians were indicted by a grand jury for hacking e-mails of the Clinton campaign, 13 other Russian nationals and 3 companies were indicted last year for using social media to influence the election, and a Dutch lawyer and a half dozen Americans have either served time, begun their sentences, are awaiting sentencing, or further prosecution. Add to that the several matters unrelated to Mueller's Russia probe that his team handed off to the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the DC circuit. There are a dozen such referrals that are secret and were unknown until mentioned in the Mueller report.

Yet for the president this was "a big, fat waste of time, energy and money".

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