Americans Don’t Need the Mueller Report to Judge Trump
The fevered speculation about when the special counsel will conclude his work overshadows how much the public already knows about the president and Russia.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report could come out as soon as next week, CNN reported on Thursday. Unless, of course, it doesn’t—after all, there have been various suggestions for months that the end was in sight, and the Justice Department said Friday there would be no report next week. And anyway, none of this matters if the newly installed Attorney General Bill Barr decides not to release the report, or releases only a limited summary, or delays the release, or …
Because of the many uncertainties about when the report will arrive, and what the public will see, and what shape the report might take, and what steps might come next, the report has taken on outsize importance in discourse and coverage about the presidential campaign, Russia, and Donald Trump. That’s risky, though. Perhaps the Mueller report will deliver a stunning new revelation about Trump’s campaign or business ties, but it could just as plausibly turn out to be a short, dry summary of material that’s already known.
Which is just the point: Regardless of the content or timing of the Mueller report, plenty of information is already available for the public to judge the president and his administration. Following the path of former President Richard Nixon’s downfall, there’s been a search for a smoking gun on par with his fateful White House tapes. But as I have written, there’s been an arsenal of smoking guns sitting out in the open for years now. Or put differently, if this is a witch hunt, investigators have already found a coven.
The existing knowledge comes from various sources. A great deal of it has been revealed in Mueller’s indictments and other filings in the case, which have offered rich details about many incidents involving the president’s associates. Other parts have emerged in press reports, or through congressional investigations. And some of the relevant information pertains to acts that were done in the open, such as the Trump ally Roger Stone’s pronouncements about WikiLeaks.
For example, the public already knows that Trump pursued a building project in Moscow well into the presidential campaign. Though, originally, his longtime aide Michael Cohen said that the effort ended in January 2016, he later admitted that it actually went until June of that year, shortly before Trump was officially nominated as the Republican candidate. Trump Organization representatives were in touch with top Russian officials about the project, and hatched a plan to give the penthouse of the building to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a gift. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Putin and shrugged at Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea. The candidate was at the very least misleading the public when he said he had no business in Russia.
Trump also publicly called on Russia to hack the emails of Hillary Clinton, his rival for the presidency and the former secretary of state. That same day, Russian hackers attempted for the first time to infiltrate Clinton’s email server. According to court filings, Stone also worked to get in touch with WikiLeaks to understand forthcoming dumps of documents obtained from Russian-government-related hackers, and communicated with top Trump staffers about the conversation. In any case, he publicly predicted WikiLeaks releases.
In June 2016, Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman met at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who they expected would give them negative information about Clinton. They’d also been told that the Kremlin supported Trump’s campaign. They did not report the contacts to law enforcement. Later, when The New York Times got wind of the meeting, President Trump released a false and misleading statement about it on his son’s behalf.
The Trump Tower meeting and the Moscow-tower planning were among the more than 100 contacts that Trump and his aides had with Russians between the start of his campaign and the inauguration. Several of them have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those contacts, including Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos. Another, Carter Page, offered confusing and seemingly contradictory accounts about his interactions with Russians during testimony to members of Congress. Collusion happened; the question is what Trump knew about it and when.
Trump also lied about paying off two women who have alleged to have had sexual affairs with him. Initially, the president said he knew nothing about the payments. Later, he acknowledged learning about them. And Cohen later said in court that Trump had instructed him to make the payments, effectively implicating Trump in a crime—in an account implicitly backed by federal prosecutors.
Whether Trump formally committed the crime of obstruction of justice remains unlitigated, but he has fought relentlessly to undermine and block the Russia investigation, mostly recently in a tweet Friday morning saying, “The Witch Hunt, so bad for our Country, must end!” According to contemporaneous quotes from James Comey, Trump pressured the then–FBI director to drop an investigation into Flynn. He fired Comey after he declined to do so. He lambasted former Attorney General Jeff Sessions both publicly and privately for recusing himself from Russia-related matters and refusing to end the probe. He has threatened Mueller publicly and reportedly attempted to fire him. According to a recent Times story, Trump tried to have his handpicked U.S. attorney take over an investigation from the Southern District of New York. His cries of “witch hunt” have become so frequent that they barely penetrate the consciousness. By any plain-English definition, he has worked strenuously to obstruct a full accounting of his actions.
Taken together, these incidents paint a vivid and consistent portrait of a president who is chronically dishonest, does not respect the rule of law, is frantic to avoid being investigated, hires people without strong ethical bearings, and placed himself in a position to be compromised by Russia during the campaign. (This doesn’t even get into the chaos and mismanagement of his presidency, the many scandals of his Cabinet members, his boasting about sexual assault, his encouragement of attacks on the press, and any number of other offenses.)
Whether one believes that this merits impeachment, should simply guarantee that Trump is not reelected in 2020, or is entirely acceptable is largely a matter of personal taste and political allegiance. But if one is not already convinced that the president’s behavior is unacceptable, it would require an immense revelation to change one’s mind—if that’s even possible. Conversely, if one looks at these facts and believes they merit impeachment (or another sanction), then standing sentry for a nebulously timed, nebulously structured report hardly seems worth the effort.
One possible reason for the anticipation is the expectation that Mueller’s report will vindicate Trump—which the president is likely to claim no matter what it says. But as the preceding recitation of facts shows, it’s already far too late for vindication. Another reason for anticipation is the hope among Trump critics that a final smoking gun might emerge that will cause a substantial group of Republican members of Congress to break from Trump. There may well be bombshells in Mueller’s report, or in indictments between now and then; the special counsel has repeatedly shocked even close observers with new revelations and details. But the number of smoking guns already in plain sight make it hard to believe that a new one will have an effect on Trump’s GOP allies that the earlier ones haven’t.
Mueller’s report, or whatever version of it the public sees, will be an important document, whenever it emerges. But it needn’t, and probably won’t, radically change anything about the basic story. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a special counsel’s report to know what kind of president Trump is.