Robert Mueller has advised Americans to go back and actually read his report if we want to understand what happened in 2016. “We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself,” he said on Wednesday morning, speaking publicly for the first time since his appointment.
But the words of the report are damning.
“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote. This help “favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
The Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” this help.
There is insufficient evidence to accuse the Trump campaign of criminal conspiracy with its Russian benefactors. However, “the social media campaign and the GRU hacking operations coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government.”
These contacts were covered up by a series of lies, both to the special counsel and to Congress. Lying by the Trump campaign successfully obscured much of what happened in 2016. The special counsel in some cases “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.” In particular, the investigation never did determine what happened to proprietary Trump-campaign polling data shared with the Russians.
Within hours of the appointment of a special counsel to investigate 2016 events, Trump began defaming him. Trump had already fired the FBI director who investigated these events. His first order to fire the special counsel appointed in the director’s place was issued on June 17, 2017, a month after Mueller’s appointment. That order would be followed by many more. Trump directed his staff to lie about these orders.
Over and above his efforts to fire the special counsel, “the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.”
The subversion of the investigation was brazen. “Many of the President’s acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, occurred in public view.”
Obstruction of justice, though, need not be clandestine to count as a crime. What matters is intent—and that must be judged by Congress, not a special counsel subordinate to the Department of Justice and bound by its rule that a president cannot be indicted.
The full report is rich with details. But that’s the essence. A foreign power interfered in the U.S. election to help the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign welcomed the help and repeatedly lied about it. The lying successfully obscured some questions the investigation sought to answer; in the end, it found insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy. President Trump, in public and in private, worked to stop the investigation.
Those are the facts. What are the remedies? Mueller underscored at his press statement: He did not exonerate the president. Under the Department of Justice rules he was subject to, he lacked the power to act.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration refuses to take steps to secure the next presidential election against the interference that swayed the last. The question of why Russia so strongly wished to help Trump remains as mysterious as ever. In particular, if you wish to understand the breadth and depth of Trump’s Russian business connections before he declared for president in 2015, Mueller’s report will not help you.
Mueller says he can do no more. The rest, Congress, is up to you.
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