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Mueller didn't charge Trump — but his report is a brutal indictment

Analysis: The special counsel's findings reveal three years of actions by the president that critics say rattle the very foundations of the American system of governance.
Image: U.S. President Trump participates in conference with state, local, tribal, and community leaders at the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump departs after taking part in an "Opportunity Zone" conference with state, local, tribal, and community leaders at the White House on April 17, 2019.Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Donald Trump has evaded criminal charges — but special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is a brutal indictment of his campaign and his presidency.

The first volume of the two-part, 448-page report details how Trump and his allies solicited, encouraged, accepted and benefited from the assistance provided by America's most storied foreign adversary as part of a multi-front assault on American democracy.

The other lays out comprehensive evidence that the president may have obstructed justice through what Mueller described as a "pattern of conduct" that included firing FBI Director Jim Comey, trying to remove Mueller, publicly praising and condemning witnesses, and seeking to limit the scope of the probe.

Taken in sum, Mueller's findings reveal three years of actions by Trump and his subordinates that critics say rattle the very foundations of the American system of governance, from the sacrosanct nature of democratic elections to the idea that no man, not even the president, is above the law.

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The story, in even its most sympathetic telling, is one of a president who used nearly every power vested in his office and his persona — including hiring and firing, the bully pulpit, party loyalty, private intimidation, and disinformation — to cover up ties between his campaign and Russia so that he could spare himself the public humiliation of having won an election that wasn't entirely on the level.

Of the marquee reports written for Congress over the decades about presidential scandals, the Mueller report will stand out for the brazenness of the chief executive — and for the degree to which insubordination among his underlings reined him in, if only at the margins.

"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,” Mueller wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment."

Only an hour or so before the report was rolled out, Attorney General William Barr, who was picked for his job after writing that a president cannot obstruct justice, said that the report found "no collusion" between Trump and Russia — an expression that Mueller painstakingly explained in the report is of no legal consequence. It is, however, a favorite term of art of one Donald J. Trump.

Some of Trump's allies on Capitol Hill were satisfied, without reading the report, that Trump came out a clear winner — exonerated because he was not prosecuted.

"We know the conclusions of the #MuellerReport: No collusion, no further indictments," Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, tweeted. "It's over. We also know the spin, and we know that many people will still claim the President is guilty. I'll be reading the report in its entirety. No spin, just facts."

But Democrats saw in Mueller's report a delineation between the powers afforded the executive and legislative branches when it comes to judging the actions of a president.

Trump's own employees, including Barr and Mueller, did not move forward with a prosecution — indeed, Mueller wrote that he determined Justice Department guidance precluded him from doing so. But he also noted that Congress, which does not report to the president, has its own set of powers.

"The acts of obstruction of justice, whether they are criminal or not, are deeply alarming in the president of the United States," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Thursday. "And it's clear that special counsel Mueller wanted the Congress to consider the repercussions and the consequences."

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Mueller had laid out a "roadmap" for Congress.

It's hard to fathom how a lengthy report in the public domain is better for Trump than the top-line declaration of a clean bill of health he got from Attorney General William Barr a few weeks ago. And there will be plenty more public discussion of the details of Mueller's findings. Already, the special counsel has been invited to Capitol Hill to testify about his conclusions.

Democrats will no doubt use their power in the House to extract as much political pain from Trump as possible and do so while making the case that they are simply standing up for small-"d" democratic values.

And while the political bar for removing Trump is likely insurmountable — it would take 20 Republicans and all 47 Senate Democrats to oust him — the behavior chronicled by Mueller towers over that of the standard set by the House for impeachment of President Bill Clinton on obstruction articles, according to experts.

Kim Wehle, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who investigated Clinton as part of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's team, said beyond that the Trump case is "infinitely more serious" than the one she worked on.

"Here we've got a hostile foreign power and the evidence is overwhelming that their objective was to attack our free and fair process," she said.

Frank O. Bowman III, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and author of the forthcoming book "High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump" said the Mueller report suggests the president committed impeachable offenses.

"The issue for impeachment is not whether a criminal statute was violated but whether a president engaged in a pattern of activity inconsistent with his obligation to take care that the law be faithfully executed and instead sought to use his authority to undercut the institutions and norms of the justice system to benefit himself," he said. "The second half of the Mueller report strongly supports such a conclusion as to Trump."

Bowman said Trump's conduct tracked with that of President Richard Nixon, but that the refusal of Trump's subordinates to follow his orders — very likely with the Nixon example in mind — may end up saving the president politically.

"The fact that they refused doesn't change the constitutional impeachment calculus at all," he said. "Still, the fact that he was so often restrained will make it easy for Republicans in Congress to wave off his otherwise impeachable behavior."

If that's the case, the question of whether Mueller's findings render Trump unfit for office will rest with the jury he's always wanted: the voters. But the special counsel's report is an indelible testament to the president's weakness in seeking Russian aid and in deceiving the nation about it.