Mueller Investigation

Trump May Not Have Obstructed the Mueller Investigation, but It Sure Looks Like He Tried

Was the president saved by the swamp he campaigned against?


The Mueller report, a redacted version of which was released today, doesn't conclude that President Trump obstructed justice. But it also doesn't conclude that he didn't. Instead, it strongly suggests that he tried—and was foiled by a staff that refused to carry out his instructions.

Attorney General William Barr's initial summary of the report quoted it as saying that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

The full paragraph is even more explicit about leaving open the possibility that Trump may have acted in a criminal manner.

"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." The evidence collected during the investigation "presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred." Is Trump a criminal? The Mueller report answers that question by saying, essentially, that the Special Counsel's office can't rule it out.

Even if Trump did not obstruct the investigation, the report provides evidence that he tried to—and failed only when his staffers refused to carry out his instructions.

The report identifies several instances in which the president apparently attempted to influence the investigation, by narrowing its scope in some way or by removing Robert Mueller. Trump, for example, pushed former FBI Director James Comey to end an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump also directed former White House counsel Don McGahn to tell Rod Rosenstein of the Department of Justice that Mueller should be taken off the investigation. Trump later told McGahn to lie about being ordered to take Mueller off the case.

Yet none of these things actually happened. Trump's staff declined to follow his orders. 

As the report says:

The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn's prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President's order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President's message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President's direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President's multiple demands that he do so.

There's a parallel here to the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, in which Trump's son and campaign associate, Donald Trump, Jr., met with a Russian national who promised to share embarrassing material on Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Informed about the potential for political dirt, the younger Trump wrote in an email, "if it's what you say, I love it." But the meeting was a bust, and none of the promised dirt ever materialized. (The Mueller report is similarly coy on this matter, stating that "although the evidence of contacts between Campaign officials and Russia affiliated individuals may not have been sufficient to establish or sustain criminal charges, several U.S. persons connected to the Campaign made false statements about those contacts and took other steps to obstruct" related investigations.)

The Trump campaign didn't collude with Russia—but it tried. Trump may not have obstructed the Mueller investigation—but it sure looks like he tried.

In contrast to suggestions that Trump is the ringleader of some sort of wide-ranging conspiracy, the picture emerging from the report is one of a temperamental and inexperienced president whose managerial bumbling and self-destructive instincts are kept at least partly in check by more experienced staff.

In some ways, it is a vindication of Trump's campaign trail argument that Washington is a swamp populated by politics-and-government lifers who hold much of the real power.

At the same time, it suggests that far from draining the swamp, Trump has become part of it, subsumed into its muck, and, if not completely powerless, consistently limited in his ability to change the political ecosystem around him. That ecosystem, meanwhile, has served as a protective buffer, preventing Trump from carrying out acts that might threaten his political future. In the end, the swamp may be what saved Trump's presidency.