by Michael Gerson
President Trump’s claim of vindication by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report depends on some creative thinking. The president, it seems, is not guilty of conspiracy with the Russians to influence the 2016 election. He is only guilty of wishing really, really hard for Russian help and having his fondest desire miraculously granted. On July 27, 2016, Trump made a public plea to the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. “Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement,” the Mueller report reveals, “GRU [Russian intelligence] officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office.”
This, evidently, doesn’t qualify as conspiracy. But can it really be a coincidence? Maybe it was the hand of Providence. Or an answer to Franklin Graham’s prayers. Whatever the non-collusive reason, Trump is clearly a lucky, lucky man.
What is less clear is how we are to accept a detailed, damning, 448-page moral and political indictment as good news for Trump and his administration. “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” according to the report. This included a “social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump” and “computer-intrusion operations” against the Clinton campaign. Though Trump campaign officials didn’t directly coordinate with Russian intelligence activities, they welcomed and rooted for them. More than ever, the 2016 presidential election deserves an asterisk, indicating a serious chance that it was won with foreign help.
Recall that Trump, during his campaign and well into his presidency, dismissed this influence as a myth. He said it might be the Chinese at work. Or it “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Trump, it turns out, is perfectly willing to minimize a national security threat for political reasons. But that isn’t conspiracy, either. Just friends helping friends.
The Mueller report documents an atmosphere of routine, rewarded deception at the White House. In one case, after ordering then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump ordered McGahn to publicly deny that the request to fire Mueller was ever made. (McGahn, to his credit, refused both orders.) In another case, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders lied about the extent of opposition within the FBI to former director James B. Comey. Looking at the tape of her statement, it is remarkable how smoothly she dissembles. Obviously a valued skill in Trump’s orbit.
And the report strongly hints that obstruction of justice took place, even though the Justice Department does not believe the prosecution of such a crime is a legal option during Trump’s term in office. In case after case, Trump employed pressure or dangled pardons in an effort to avoid embarrassment or legal exposure.
Some of the apparent obstruction was done in private: “Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over . . . investigations . . . . The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels.”
At other times, the effort was not hidden at all: “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.”
The evidence in the report is quite specific. In one instance, Trump “sought to prevent public disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 meeting between Russians and campaign officials; and he used public forums to attack potential witnesses who might offer adverse information and to praise witnesses who declined to cooperate.”
As I read it, the case for obstruction of justice is strong. And the report takes pains to point out a possible congressional role in examining obstruction claims. “The Constitution does not authorize the President to engage in such conduct, and those actions would transgress the President’s duty to ‘take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.’ ”
What Congress should do with this information is a matter for another day. But congressional leaders have some major choices ahead.
So: No evidence of direct conspiracy between Trump officials and the Russians, but plenty of evidence of desired conspiracy. And: Limited ways to prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice while he is president, but strong evidence that obstruction was intended and occurred.
Already, Republicans are urging the country to move on. In this case, moving on would ignore and reward corruption on a grand scale.
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist for the The Washington Post