Mueller’s report on Trump hands the baton to Congress

Findings will herald an escalation of the war between US president and his detractors

April 18th, 2019: US attorney general William Barr says that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation did not find that Donald Trump or members of his campaign worked with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Video: Reuters


Shortly after William Barr, the US attorney general, held a press conference to pronounce Donald Trump’s across-the-board innocence, the president tweeted “Game over: no collusion. No obstruction”.

Leaving aside the fact that Trump’s meme borrowed from the Game of Thrones – the television drama that centres on a gold-hunting family that keeps its grip on power through fear and foreign alliances – his message offered a poor summary of what was to come.

Two hours later, Robert Mueller’s report was released. From its first page, which identifies “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign”, to its conclusion that Congress can “permissibly criminalise” a president for obstruction of justice, Mueller’s report merely handed the baton to Congress.

It highlights the Russian government’s “sweeping and systemic” operations to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour. The report’s publication marks neither the beginning of the end of the Trump investigations, nor the end of the beginning. It leaves us in the middle of the cauldron.

If anything, Mueller’s conclusion will herald an escalation of the war between Trump and his detractors. It is highly doubtful most Americans will wade through all 448 pages of the report. Nor would doing so necessarily challenge their pre-existing points of view.

Trump’s supporters are focusing on the headline conclusion that Mueller found “insufficient evidence” to prove that there was criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. His critics are highlighting almost its entire remaining contents.

False testimony

The report lays out in painstaking detail how Trump tried to arm-twist people who worked for him into lying on his behalf, how he tried to cajole former employees to give false testimony, and how he dangled presidential pardons to those who complied.

According to the report, Trump launched “public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in public and in private to encourage witnesses not to co-operate with the investigation”. By any commonsense understanding of the meaning of “obstruction of justice”, Mueller lays out in exhaustive detail Trump’s repeated attempts at doing so.

Far from exonerating Trump, Mueller says the decision on whether to prosecute belongs to Congress. “Inferences can be drawn about his [Trump’s] intent,” says the report.

The same applies to the ordinary English usage of the words “co-ordinate” and “collude”. As Mueller makes plain, neither term is defined in US criminal law. The bar for proving criminal conspiracy, on the other hand, is very high.

It requires proof of the kind of “corrupt intent” that was supplied by the Oval Office tapes that Richard Nixon recorded – the release of which finally triggered impeachment proceedings against him. Mueller could find no such clinching evidence of Trump’s motives.

But he lays out in detail a clear pattern of co-ordination between Trump’s campaign, including his son Donald Jr, and thinly disguised proxies for the Russian government.

Five hours after Trump publicly called on Russia to download Hillary Clinton’s emails in July 2016, Russian intelligence officers made their first attempt to hack her personal office, says the report. Trump expressed repeated “frustration” at the delay of WikiLeaks data dumps from Clinton and Democratic-hacked emails. His son communicated “extensively” with WikiLeaks to hasten their release.

Multiple cases

The redacted Mueller report raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps its most frequently used phrase is “harm to ongoing matter” to cover the roughly tenth of the report that is covered in black ink. This refers to multiple cases that Mueller spun off from his inquiry, including the prosecution of Roger Stone, Trump’s longest-standing henchman, as well as New York-based investigations into alleged Trump Organization corruption and self-dealing.

The “ongoing matter” phrase also points to the half-life of the Mueller report, which is not even close. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will now come under acute pressure – some from the party’s base, some of it self-generated – to pick up the leads Mueller has provided.

Much like Game of Thrones, things will probably continue to get worse before they improve. It would be a surprise were Mueller’s leads to be exhausted before the 2020 election. The investigation he picked up two years ago is now changing hands. When Trump learnt Mueller had been appointed as special counsel, he said: “This is the end of my presidency. I’m f*cked.”

Trump’s presidency, of course, is a long way from being finished – perhaps as much as 5½ years remain. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the second half of the quote. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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