Editorial: The deeply disturbing Mueller report

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Published April 18, 2019

The voluminous report from special counsel Robert Mueller provides a deeply disturbing portrait of a candidate who welcomed the help of a foreign country to get elected and of a president who repeatedly attempted to undermine Mueller's investigation. Now it is up to Congress and the American people to objectively digest the report and determine the fate of Donald Trump, who in no conceivable way has been exonerated.

Over more than 400 plainly written pages released Thursday, the report provides a readable narrative that describes Trump's eagerness for any help Russia could provide to help him win the 2016 election. It details interactions between campaign operatives and Russians, including the sharing of internal campaign polling. Ultimately, Mueller took a narrow view of the law and concluded there was "insufficient evidence'' of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia — fueling a defiant Trump to repeatedly tweet about no collusion.

Even more revealing is the redacted report's section on the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller's team clearly struggled with this question, and it was significantly influenced by the Justice Department's practice that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. In no way does that mean Trump has been cleared.

"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,'' the report says. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.''

Indeed, the Mueller report lists 11 specific moments where Trump could be viewed as obstructing justice by attempting to undermine the investigation. They include Trump asking FBI director James Comey to end the investigation, firing Comey, attempting to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "unrecuse himself'' and trying to get Mueller removed. None of these examples reflect the ethical behavior expected of an American president.

If there is a silver lining in this unflattering narrative it is how many Trump aides refused to carry out his directions. As the report summarizes, "The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that was largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.''

The public version of the Mueller report is not as heavily redacted as once feared, and congressional leaders are receiving a version where only grand jury material is redacted. Mueller also is expected to testify before congressional committees, and it will be helpful for Americans to hear him answer questions for the first time. Whether a counter report from the Trump administration will be released is unclear.

What is clear is that despite the White House spin, the Mueller report is far from vindication for the president. It also is clear that Attorney General William Barr is acting more as Trump's personal defense lawyer and cannot be trusted to provide factual information or independent legal opinions. In a pre-emptive news conference Thursday before the Mueller report was released, Barr indicated Mueller did not rely on Justice Department practice that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. The report indicates otherwise. Barr also portrayed Trump as very cooperative with the investigation. The report indicates otherwise; the president refused to be personally interviewed and dodged many questions in his written responses.

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When Trump learned Mueller had been appointed as special counsel, the report says, Trump declared "this is the end of my presidency'' and added a profanity as an exclamation point. Mueller has performed an invaluable public service with this comprehensive investigation, and the fate of Trump's presidency is now up to Congress and the American people. One way or another, there will be a verdict delivered on this president's unethical, unacceptable conduct. The election is less than 19 months away.