Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Four reasons Mueller’s report is bad news for Trump

Special counsel’s findings look great for the US president, until you consider the long-term

Even when there was very good news for him, Donald Trump just had to lie about it.

As soon as his loyal attorney general William Barr issued a four-page statement on the conclusions of Robert Mueller’s long-awaited investigation into allegations of collusion with Russia, the president was on Twitter declaring “complete and total EXONERATION”.

Barr’s statement was extremely sparse in its actual quotation from Mueller, but even so it clearly cited his statement that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” in relation to possible obstruction of justice.

Trump’s flagrantly dishonest claim was par for the course but it was a useful reminder that neither his behaviour nor opinions about him will change very much after Mueller.


In the short term, Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings is indeed excellent news for Trump. It feeds one of his key narratives: that he is a victim of the “deep state”, of the “enemies of the people” in the media and of a Democratic opposition that has never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency.

He will wave his “complete and total exoneration” as a banner all the way from now to his planned re-election in November 2020. But over that period it may not be as good for him as it looks, either politically or legally. It may even turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

In relation to the politics, we have to bear in mind the following:

1. More awkward questions

One is that non-exoneration on the question of obstruction of justice. It is a very odd business. It was Robert Mueller’s job to decide whether or not Trump obstructed justice, so why the apparent shirking of the task? There is something not quite right here – if Trump did not commit the crime, he ought to be exonerated; if he did commit the crime, he ought to be indicted.

This is a logical vacuum and vacuums demand to be filled. Media and congressional investigations will try to do just that. The very uncertainty guarantees many months of awkward questions for Trump.

2. No electoral gains

Second, Trump is in all of this a victim of his own success. His great strength in relation to Mueller has always been his ability to convince his own base that the whole thing was a stitch-up. Just last week, days before Mueller submitted his report, a USA Today poll showed half of respondents agreeing with Trump that he was the victim of a “witchhunt”.

This showed how effective Trump and his Republican allies had been in discrediting Mueller. But it turns out to be rather problematic; since virtually all of those likely to vote for Trump already believed that he is innocent, he gains much less than he ought to.

3. No impeachment

Most importantly, it is actually very good for the Democrats that they do not now have to try to impeach Trump. Suppose Mueller had found that Trump had in fact conspired with the Russian government in its campaign of interference with the 2016 elections. What then?

The House Democrats would have been unable to resist pressure to begin impeachment proceedings. The drama would have dominated politics for the rest of this year, crowding out almost every other issue.

And it would have ended with the Republican-controlled Senate “completely and totally exonerating” Trump. He would have had another victory, and another proof for his supporters of his status of persecuted innocence.

All of these cases carry the risk of prison for Trump and his family members

There is no evidence, moreover, that the American public has any great desire for Trump’s presidency to be ended, not at the ballot box, but through impeachment. Activists undoubtedly wanted it and are bitterly disappointed that Mueller has not opened the way.

But in a Harvard/Politico poll in January, of 21 possible priorities for the incoming Congress, impeaching the president was tied for last, with only 38 per cent deeming it “extremely important”. Even Democratic voters ranked it only 14th on their priority list.

And in fact, most of the more politically astute Democrats have been very well aware of this. Their wise old House leader Nancy Pelosi has always played down impeachment as a strategy for ousting Trump.

The Democrats swept to victory in the House elections last November by talking about the things that people are most concerned with: healthcare, education, Trump’s grossly inequitable tax reforms. That remains the road to victory in 2020 and Mueller, paradoxically, may have helped the Democrats to stay on it and avoid the swamp of an unpopular and ultimately doomed impeachment.

4. More investigations

Whatever about the politics, Trump will of course be immensely relieved that he and his family are not facing federal charges in relation to Russia. But here too there is a certain irony. Federal crimes are subject to Trump’s own unilateral powers of pardon. The real terror for Trump and his intimates is the possibility of charges at state level, where his writ does not run.

The irony is that if Mueller had raised any of these possible charges to federal level, the principle of double jeopardy would have protected the Trumps from state prosecution. Now, the way is clear for the investigations that Trump must fear most, those by the hard-nosed Second District of New York.

Here, possible crimes abound. There are the violations of campaign finance laws in the payments of hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen has already directly implicated his old boss in these crimes, and produced a cheque signed by Trump and his son Donald Junior.

There is the staggering $107 million that Trump’s inauguration committee raised, some of it (illegally) from foreign donors, and much of it still unaccounted for. The Southern District subpoenaed relevant documents last month.

There is Cohen’s evidence of fraudulent practices like the inflation of assets for some purposes while deflating them for others. Subpoenas have also been issued in relation to Trump’s murky dealings with Deutsche Bank. The New York tax authorities are investigating him.

Maybe Trump will enjoy “complete and total exoneration” in all these cases. But they remain a profound threat, not just to his political reputation, but to his freedom. All of them carry the risk of prison for him and his family members – Cohen got three years for the Stormy Daniels pay-off and he was, it seems clear, acting on Trump’s orders.

The old Sinn Féin slogan in Ireland, seeking votes for candidates who were also prisoners, was “Put him in to get him out”.

Trump may still have to adapt it in 2020, asking his fans to put him back in the Oval Office to keep him out of jail.