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ECONOMIST "What to make of the Mueller report"


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Copyright: The Economist, 19 Apr 2019

Robert Mueller’s magnum opus
What to make of the Mueller report
The redacted version suggests that Donald Trump is his own worst enemy

The most eagerly anticipated work of American literature has finally been published, albeit with a few parts missing, which only make it seem more tantalising. Robert Mueller’s report has been downloaded almost 100,000 times from government websites. Many more people will have looked at copies emailed by friends or hosted on media websites. The interest in a government report more than 400 pages long is understandable.

Mr Mueller spent nearly two years investigating links between the Russian government and President Donald Trump’s campaign. Last month the attorney-general, William Barr, released a four-page summary, stating that the report did not establish that anyone involved with Mr Trump’s campaign “conspired or co-ordinated with Russia” in its election-interference efforts, nor did it establish that Mr Trump committed obstruction of justice. Mr Trump treated that summary as dispositive. No collusion, no obstruction, “Complete and Total EXONERATION,” as he tweeted. The full report paints a different picture.

The first 170 pages concern Russia. They begin by laying out the scope of Russia’s influence operation. Some of this may be familiar to those who perused two previous indictments issued by Mr Mueller’s team. One was against members of the GRU, Russia’s military-intelligence agency, who hacked into and stole emails from servers belonging to the Democratic Party and to people working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The other was against the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm run by a Russian businessman closely linked to Vladimir Putin, which engaged in a social-media campaign to sow discord and damage Mrs Clinton’s campaign.

Though Americans have understandably been focused on the evidence about whether the president was complicit in a foreign power’s attempt to sway the election, this part of the report is arguably the most important part from the point of view of protecting future elections. Unfortunately, America’s deep political divisions are all too easy to exploit.

IRA staff sitting in St Petersburg (the one on the Neva rather than on Tampa Bay) pretended to be Americans on social media and staked out divisive positions on either end of the political spectrum, passing themselves off as supporters of Mr Trump, or of Black Lives Matter. The outfit also organised multiple real-world events, starting with a “confederate rally” in Houston in late 2015, as well as several pro-Trump rallies in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania (a state that Mr Trump won narrowly and unexpectedly). Some rallies, the report explains, drew few attendees; others drew hundreds. Candidate Trump pointed to one event organised by the IRA in Florida as evidence of his popularity there.

The Russian government and the Trump campaign were working to the same purpose, and each hoped the other would help it out. But as Mr Barr noted in both his written summary and his press conference, Mr Mueller’s team did not establish that anyone from Mr Trump’s campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia in those efforts. Here is how Mr Mueller’s team put it:
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

This judgment turns on the absence of any agreement, explicit or implicit, between the parties to conspire, which seems fair. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of Trump campaign members for working with people with ties to a government that kills journalists, imprisons political rivals and had recently pulled off the first land grab in Europe since the second world war, is quite something to see when it is all put in the same place.

Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s campaign chair, who was deep in debt to a Russian oligarch, shared internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his Kiev-based employees with apparent links to both that oligarch and Russian intelligence. Even Rick Gates, Mr Manafort’s right-hand man, believed Mr Kilimnik was a “spy”. That did not stop Mr Manafort from meeting Mr Kilimnik. George Papadopoulos, a junior foreign-policy advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, tried to let the campaign know early on that the Russians had compromising material on Mrs Clinton (nobody thought to tell the FBI). Donald Trump junior arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Mrs Clinton. And of course Mr Trump himself was pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow project until just five months before the election, while simultaneously pushing for better relations with Moscow. None of this may have been illegal, but had voters known about it they might have made a different choice.

The report’s second part deals with obstruction of justice. Both in his summary and again in his press conference, Mr Barr noted that Mr Mueller declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” regarding whether to bring charges. Guiding that reluctance was long-standing policy against indicting a sitting president, which, wrote Mr Mueller, led him “not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the president committed crimes.” Because no charges could be brought, Mr Trump would have no chance to clear his name at trial. But, Mr Mueller continues, “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state…Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, neither does it exonerate him.”

Sustaining an obstruction charge requires three things: an obstructive act, a connection between that act and an actual or contemplated criminal proceeding, and corrupt intent. Mr Mueller comes closest to accusing Mr Trump of meeting those three conditions in the firing of James Comey, a former FBI director, six days after Mr Comey declined to publicly state that Mr Trump was not personally under investigation. Afterwards he told the Russian foreign minister, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” That could be an obstructive act because, although it did not stop the investigation into his campaign’s links with Russia, it could affect how Mr Comey’s successor conducted that investigation. But Mr Mueller leaves open whether Mr Trump’s motive was a desire to impede the investigation, or simple anger that a subordinate failed to do as told.

Nor is that the only occasion on which the president tried to influence the investigation. He tried to get the White House Counsel to remove Mr Mueller, and then to deny that he had made that request. He tried to get Jeff Sessions, the former attorney-general, to curtail the terms of Mr Mueller’s investigation, and to rescind his recusal from overseeing it. He tried to prevent the disclosure of embarrassing emails. He seemed to dangle a pardon before Mr Manafort. After Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, began cooperating with Mr Mueller, Mr Trump called him a “rat”, and publicly insulted his family. As Mr Mueller notes, “the president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

The striking thing about this section, when read in full, is how self-wounding Mr Trump’s behaviour has been. Had he simply kept quiet, and let Mr Mueller complete his investigation into his campaign’s links into Russia, the obstruction investigation never would have happened. Instead, he interfered clumsily on many occasions, allowing the special counsel to amass a damning record of the president’s truculence, dishonesty and contempt for federal investigators.

Mr Barr said in his press conference that Mr Trump “was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” But all presidents are harassed and attacked by the opposition party; none in recent memory have responded as Mr Trump has. Mr Barr also said that the White House has “fully co-operated” with Mr Mueller’s investigation. But Mr Trump never agreed to be interviewed by Mr Mueller’s team. Instead, he provided written answers to questions, which, said Mr Mueller, were “insufficien[t]…the President stated on more than 30 occasions that he “does not ‘recall’ or ‘remember’ or have an ‘independent recollection’” of information called for by the questions. Other answers were ‘incomplete or imprecise’.”

Mr Barr also stated that Mr Mueller “did not indicate that his purpose was to leave the decision [whether Mr Trump obstructed justice] to Congress…it was my prerogative as attorney general to make that decision.” Mr Mueller’s report is not so clear: “Congress has authority,” he wrote, “to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority…The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

It seems unlikely that Congress will do so: the Democratic leadership in the House has sensibly concluded that impeachment proceedings could backfire politically. There is nothing in the new report that will suddenly persuade Republicans in the Senate to abandon the president. It is nonetheless an extraordinary document.