It’s there in black and white, in Volume II on page 90 of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report: “The president sought to use his official powers to remove the special counsel.”
The report’s 400 pages are awash in detailed accounts of Donald Trump’s “targeted efforts to the control the investigation” and exercise of “undue influence,” ranging from “repeated efforts” behind closed doors to persuade then–White House counsel Don McGahn and aide Corey Lewandowski to perjure themselves, to the president’s all-too-public firing of James Comey and humiliation of Jeff Sessions. It is clear, too, that the president knew these manipulations could spell legal and political trouble—“I’m fucked,” he said—and responded to that guilty knowledge with an attempted cover-up. And while he provided written answers to many (though not all) of Mueller’s Russia questions, the report pointedly notes that he declined to provide any testimony in the obstruction inquiry.
Despite the best attempts at distraction and dissembling by Attorney General Barr during his pre-release presser, we now know that Mueller’s team concluded that many of the president’s actions could satisfy ordinary legal standards for obstruction of justice. In sharp contrast to Barr’s portrayal of a diffident special counsel, the report’s executive summary reveals that Mueller ultimately stepped aside from a charging decision for only one overriding reason: The Justice Department’s long-standing supposition that a sitting president can’t be indicted. Mueller, ever a careful institution man, was going to honor policy and precedent even amid an unprecedented and policy-upending presidential scandal. But that didn’t mean he expected the attorney general to declare President Trump off the hook.
In fact, far from calling for the investigation to end, Mueller makes a sharp nod to the constitutional role of Congress “to prosecute presidential misconduct.” Far from exonerating the president, as Barr suggested, the Mueller report—even with redactions—is virtually a roadmap for congressional investigation, up to and including impeachment. Its section heads alone are like scene treatments for a mob movie: “The President Asks Corey Lewandowski to Deliver A Message.” “The President Orders Priebus to Demand Sessions’ Resignation.” “The President Orders McGahn to Deny That the President Tried to Fire the Special Counsel.”
The Donald Trump of this report is engaged in nonstop, frantic efforts to control an investigation he believes threatens the foundations of his presidency. The special counsel’s inquiry survived, the report notes, only because key officials “declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” (Even sycophantic courtiers like Lewandowski and Sessions, it turns out, had their limits—or at least an acute understanding that, unlike the president, they could be indicted for obstruction if they followed his orders.)
If the president should take no comfort from Mueller’s findings on obstruction, neither should those—on the right or the left—who would minimize the illegality and consequence of Russia’s two-year-long efforts to interfere in American politics. The report’s Volume I lays out what began, in Mueller’s account, as a general attempt at social-media disruption, and later evolved into direct intervention to advance Trump’s political prospects. The report revisits and synthesizes what’s already known about election interference, incorporating the specific (and at this point well-known) intersection of interests between oligarchs aligned with President Putin and Trump’s business partners and political advisers, and the various meetings and messages exchanged between the sprawling cast of variously corrupt characters.
In Mueller’s telling, the Russian effort began in 2014 with fake social-media accounts set up by the Internet Research Agency, ultimately reaching millions of followers and organizing dozens of rallies; later came the separately organized hacking of the Clinton campaign, attributed by Mueller to the GRU (Russian military intelligence). The report adds troubling new details to the picture, including a previously undisclosed claim of successful GRU intrusion into one Florida county’s electoral database. If true, that moves the Russian effort from a metaphorical intrusion into American politics into a direct attack on voting rights.
While the report finds no evidence that the Trump campaign “coordinated or conspired” with the Russian government in this election-hacking conspiracy, it notes with frustration how figures associated with the Trump campaign “deleted relevant communications,” and repeatedly lied to the special counsel about their contacts with Russia-connected operatives (the crimes for which Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn have now been convicted). The report is unsparing about the enthusiasm with which Team Trump embraced and promoted Russia’s fake social-media posts and illegal e-mail dumps, noting that at times the campaign was “receptive” to Russian offers of help.
What next? The first and obvious step is for Congress to take up Robert Mueller’s challenge to hold the president accountable on obstruction. But there is a broader challenge. As Zephyr Teachout has pointed out in The Washington Post, to indict Paul Manafort and his influence-peddling cronies in both parties, Team Mueller revived the long-dormant Foreign Agents Registration Act, for the first time in memory taking seriously the regulation of international influence-peddling that subverts democratic decision-making and oversight.
There, too, Mueller has marked a road: Congress needs to define other ways that corrupt transnational players exploit weaknesses in American law and regulation—from real estate to the Internet—to advance their own assets and interests. The Mueller report amounts to a two-volume chronicle of attack on American democratic institutions, more complex and alarming than just these two wearying political scandals. And any serious reading means reckoning with how vulnerable democracy and the rule of law have become to a generation of transnational money-launderers and oligarchs. The investigation is telling us, in essence, that it’s not too late to push back.