One of the biggest surprises is that there aren’t more surprises…but that doesn’t mean we should just shrug and move on…
Pages and pages of the report amount to this: Trump’s an incredibly big liar, and abuser of power, by frequently trying to force others to lie for him, and make them do his dirty work for him. But in a way, that’s just more definitive proof of the kind of behavior we already knew about, starting with some of his very first acts as President, involving crowd size at his inauguration.
And the report establishes the Trump campaign did receive illegally obtained information from a foreign government, and went out and used that information to their candidate’s benefit. That’s why one of the things Attorney General Bob Barr notes the most strongly in his pre-report release news conference was:
Which is true.
But it got a little more complicated over the weekend, when Trump’s triumphant lawyer Rudy Giuliani proclaimed on CNN “there’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians”. Which to us seems pretty close to an informal invitation for foreign governments to hack opponents again in the text election, and share those fruits with Trump. But acting on their own volition, of course. And one way of interpreting Barr’s interpretation would be that’s now deemed to be O.K.
But here’s the potential problem with that: it is illegal for foreign governments or people to donate money directly to a U.S. Presidential candidate. But if they spend money on hacking for the benefit of a candidate of their choosing it’s O.K.? We’re not so sure about that. Illegally obtained information that gives one candidate a clear advantage could be seen as an in-kind contribution, which has value, same as money, and that could be illegal. So we almost definitely haven’t heard the end of that.
Anyway, back to the report: which does not portray Trump as a traitor, nor as a knowing conspirator with a foreign government. So in that sense Trump did “win” the report. The Washington Post has a great story on how the Mueller team finally decided to make this determination.
So that’s interesting too, because if we fully go along with the findings in the Mueller report, Trump spent an inordinate amount of time lying about and covering up things he either didn’t in fact do, or didn’t rise to the level of a chargeable offense. And also strenuously endeavoring to intimidate or silence those he felt might not be inclined to fully go along with the elaborate falsehoods he was spinning.
That’s still the tune Trump’s playing in the aftermath of the report’s release. This weekend, his unfettered anger is almost exclusively directed at those who did the most to save his ass by refusing to execute his most preposterous and obstructive orders.
The question of “why” Trump ran so rampant over his staff, and the truth, when ultimately they went out of their way not to let him self-destruct (but at the same time refused to lie under oath to federal investigators) still looms large. Mueller does address this in his report, saying:
“Obstruction of justice can be motivated by a desire to protect noncriminal personal interests, to protect against investigations where underlying criminal liability falls into a gray area, or to avoid personal embarrassment.”
OK, but what about paranoia? What about Trump’s compulsion to punch out at anybody who isn’t fully willing to do whatever he commands (however underhanded those things may be), which he appears to use as his only test of loyalty. Again, the report portrays some of the most extremely loyal individuals as those who refused or ignored Trump’s commands because they knew that’s what would truly get him, and them into trouble. Or simply that they were the wrong things to do. Yet that’s who Trump today is expressing the most anger towards.
By “note takers” he seems to be expressly targeting former White House Counsel, Don McGahn, who refused an order by Trump to fire Special Counsel Mueller. In the report, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus said McGahn at that point was ready to quit, calling the President’s demands “crazy shit”. And Trump is quoted as saying:
“Why do you take notes?….Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes….I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”
Although McGahn was the chief attorney for the Trump campaign long before the election, he’s often most closely associated with one particular task: ensuring that Trump appoint many ultra-Conservative judges to the many openings in the federal court system and the Supreme Court. U.S.A. Today called him “the architect of [Trump’s] judicial agenda” along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s no coincidence he left the White House almost immediately after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was conformed. Kavanaugh was confirmed on October 6 of last year; McGahn left on the 17th.
Meanwhile White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was caught in a bald-faced lie when confronted under oath, seems to be doing just fine with the President. He even went out of his way to boost her in a Retweet over the weekend.
Attorney General William Barr offered a much softer interpretation of Trump’s behavior in his pre-Mueller report release news conference, saying Trump was simply “frustrated and angry”. We think that falls far short of the behavior detailed in the report. And the fact that Barr singled that part of the President’s behavior out for comment ahead of time demonstrates that even he understood how outlandish it would appear.
One more thing before we wrap up today: part of the reason there were so few revelations in the Mueller report, is that most of what was in there had already been sniffed out and dug up by the media. For instance, the part about Trump ordering White House counsel Don McGahn to order the firing of Special Counsel Mueller, and McGahn refusing, which was reported in the New York Times back in January 2018. Trump at the time called it “fake news”, and does so to this day, Tweeting the enshrinement of the story in the Mueller report, based on McGahn’s testimony to the Mueller team is “total bullshit”. (Trump often discredits people and documents even as he at the same time uses them as proof that they “exonerate” him.) Trump’s weekend profanity also extends to a Retweet calling the Washington Post a “DNC circle jerk”. Trump must also be furious that a lot of what he called “fake news” (and now there’s proof wasn’t), originated from leaks inside the White House. Either from people who didn’t approve of certain things the President was doing, or wanted to cover their own asses. If the latter is more true, we’re wondering if the level of leaks might ebb a bit now that the White House has cleared the hurdle of the Mueller investigation?
Of course, reporters also chased down a lot of stories that turned out not to be completely accurate, or have yet to be proven true.
So on this one both sides are claiming vindication: Liberals are arguing the Mueller report proves the Washington Posts and New York Times’ of the world were right all along, with many stories Trump disputed, now confirmed as completely accurate by the Mueller team, based on sworn, first-hand testimony of those involved (except Trump, and that’s his own fault for evading questioning). Meanwhile, Conservatives, led by Trump, are arguing the Mueller report proves the media was completely wrong about a Russia conspiracy. And in a way both may be right: based on the Mueller report, reporting about goings-on inside the White House turned out to be pretty spot on, while more far-flung stories were not generally validated by Mueller.
We bring this up because we think this dispute provides, in miniature, a very good representation of how politics in this country could possibly roll even further downhill over the next 2 years, especially if everybody gets deeply embroiled in an impeachment fight. Let the voters sort it out. We’ll expand on that in our next column.