Mueller Investigation

Mueller Report Shows a Weak President, Not a Weakened Presidency

That's a potentially dangerous combination.

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Despite what the MAGA memes and lefty conspiracy theories might suggest, President Donald Trump is not a particularly muscular chief executive. He's not an omnipotent, swaggering presence bending the country to his will—no matter how many times he points out that, yes, he won the election.

There are many things to be gleaned from the 448-page report released last week by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller (my colleagues have noted many of the most important details already), but one of the most under-appreciated might be just how weak Trump appears to be, even within his own administration. In incident after incident in the Mueller report, Trump's underlings and subordinates ignore or contradict his direct orders—and may have saved the president from committing serious crimes in the process.

"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," the report states.

Consider two telling examples from the Mueller report. When Trump was trying to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump called Cory Lewandowski—a private citizen, not a member of the administration—into the Oval Office and dictated a message to be delivered to Sessions. Lewandowski, apparently unwilling to deliver the message directly to Sessions, set up a meeting with another White House official, Rick Dearborn, and asked him to pass the message along to Sessions instead.

"The message 'definitely raised an eyebrow' for Dearborn, and he recalled not wanting to ask where it came from or think further about doing anything with it," according to the Mueller report. "Dearborn also said that being asked to serve as a messenger to Sessions made him uncomfortable. He recalled later telling Lewandowski that he had handled the situation, but he did not actually follow through with delivering the message to Sessions."

Or consider what happened in June 2017, when Trump reportedly sought to fire Mueller. Rather than calling Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with the order to terminate the investigation, Trump called then-White House Counsel Don McGahn at his home and insisted that McGahn tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

"McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request," the Mueller report states. "To end the conversation with the President, McGahn left the President with the impression that McGahn would call Rosenstein. McGahn recalled that he had already said no to the President's request and he was worn down, so he just wanted to get off the phone."

Instead of following the order, McGahn drafted a letter of resignation.

There are other incidents in the Mueller report that follow the same basic outline. They give the impression of a president who is weak both personally and professionally—unable to summon the testicular fortitude to directly confront his own attorney general, for example, while also being routinely ignored by those lower down on the chain of command. That conclusion can be drawn not only from the Mueller report but from other accounts of the inner workings of the administration—including an incident documented in Bob Woodward's book, Fear, in which Gary Cohn, economic adviser to the White House, literally stole a letter off of Trump's desk to prevent the president from signing it and thereby terminating a U.S.-South Korea trade deal.

This is not a new observation. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Trump "extraordinarily weak" and has authored multiple columns detailing the president's inability to assert himself "against restraints imposed by his allies or advisers." Reason's Jesse Walker has highlighted how federal institutions have constrained Trump in some ways even as they have been empowered by him in others. "Power isn't flowing to the executive so much as it's flowing to whole swaths of the executive branch," Walker wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year.

But the release of the Mueller report freshly underlines the extent to which the Trump administration functions despite the president, not because of him.

Libertarians and others who are concerned about the power of the executive branch might consider all of this a point in Trump's favor. After all, wouldn't we prefer a president who is little more than a leader in name only?

But it's important not to conflate a weak president, like Trump, with a weakened presidency. Indeed, it's quite clear that the presidency has lost none of its robust, liberty-threatening powers under Trump. On trade, immigration, the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and plenty of other policy areas, the Trump administration has been as powerful as any other in recent history.

"When we consider how many of this president's abuses, attempted or accomplished, were based on powers his predecessors had already seized, we should consider ourselves lucky things haven't gone worse," writes Gene Healy in the May issue of Reason.

The sunny view is that Trump's aides have somehow discerned the best outcome for the country and are selectively obeying or disobeying the president as a means of steering executive power towards that result.

The most realistic take is that the executive branch of the United States government—the mightiest branch of the most awesomely powerful state in world history—is increasingly run by unelected, unaccountable individuals. Even without considering the implications of what that would mean in the event of a major international crisis, this is a potentially problematic arrangement. It also raises worrying questions in the long run. After Trump is gone, will the executive branch continue to operate in this way? Could a stronger leader with fewer subordinates willing to openly defy his commands do more damage?

Preventing that requires weakening not the president but the presidency. That, in turn, would mean returning to Congress the power to make war and set trade policy. It would mean shutting down swaths of executive branch agencies and returning their regulatory functions to the states.

Getting there would require a determined effort by a committed executive with an electoral mandate and a clear-eyed vision about the appropriate role for his or her office. It would require a president whose strength rested on personal humility and an understanding of the principles that underpin the American government. Trump is not that person, as he demonstrates on an almost daily basis.

And, indeed, one of the primary benefits of a weaker presidency would be that the personal character and political strength of the president would not matter as much.

That the institutions and individuals within the executive branch have corralled some of Trump's worst impulses is, for now, a small comfort. His personal and professional weaknesses may eventually render Trump little more than a figurehead within his own administration—but the office of the president will survive Trump's tenure and will remain as potent as ever.

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  1. Trump , terrible president and the portions are so small too.

  2. Trump politically survived one of the few recorded coup attempts in American history.

    His formula of having interns troll the media on Twitter, using solid aides to give advice, and not being scared to tell Lefties to “fuck off” has made him the best President in over 80 years.

    MAGA!

    1. Get a room for Christ’s sake. Is it Shark Week yet?

      1. Tony…Trump beat every Democrat and Lefty going after him. Every single one.

        1. Trump beat a bunch of Republicans. He only beat one Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Trump lost the House in the 2018 midterms and Nancy Pelosi has gotten the better of him since that point.

          1. “Trump beat a bunch of Republicans. He only beat one Democrat, Hillary Clinton.”
            VOX, right?
            You’re talking points are tired.

    2. Seriously, this account has to be the worst/best troll ever or just the most moronic ever created.

  3. Notice media types like Boehm think politicians are super-human and deserve to be worshiped.

  4. The Mueller Report proves #TrumpRussia denialists like Glenn Greenwald have been hilariously wrong from the very beginning. It also proves all patriotic Americans must demand impeachment.

    1. You won’t find many patriotic Americans here. Just people masquerading as libertarians when they really just worship whatever the Republicans do, including of course Trump.

      1. Actually we don’t like the republicans either.

        Just Trump. You know, the living, weak ass, Russia colluding, Hillary imprisoning, intelligence agency pwning, job creating, nafta trashing, tax refunding, mueller bitch-stomping, Trump.

        Something something actions something louder than words.

  5. I feel like this is just Trump’s style, probably in business too. He knows he has no filter so he lets others serve as his filter

  6. “Getting there would require a determined effort by a committed executive with an electoral mandate and a clear-eyed vision about the appropriate role for his or her office. It would require a president whose strength rested on personal humility and an understanding of the principles that underpin the American government.”

    Are scientists going to dig of Jefferson’s body and clone him as if he were a paleolithic horse?

    1. Are scientists going to dig of Jefferson’s body and clone him as if he were a paleolithic horse?

      Unfortunately, Jefferson’s ideals of how a president should be were a lot better than his actions as actual president.

      1. Yeah. Principles dies when you enter D.C.

      2. Perhaps you’d prefer we did up Silent Cal?

  7. Oh, you think Trump’s done?
    https://youtu.be/7Ewe74xOlkQ

  8. “There are other incidents in the Mueller report that follow the same basic outline. They give the impression of a president who is weak both personally and professionally—unable to summon the testicular fortitude”

    So a narrative was crafted, and it is being taken as reality?

    I mean yeah, it could all be true every word evey syllable but why would anyone take anything Mueller says at face value?

    1. it could all be true every word evey syllable but why would anyone take anything Mueller says at face value?

      Because it comports with virtually everything else known about him.

      1. Well everything except his conflict of interest and his arguably prosecutorial misconduct for wasting two years to come out with absolutely nothing of substance.

  9. I don’t mind it so much if my grocer is an utterly ignorant and incompetent liar. I’ll just shop somewhere else. But I’m stuck with an utterly ignorant, amoral and incompetent liar who happens to hold a lot of power, much of it wielded arbitrarily and illegally and used to settle personal grudges. So yeah, it’s kind of a problem.

    PS / But Hillary

    1. PS / But Hillary

      ^ This. Partisan butthurt on both sides tends to distract from the fact that the Great Disaster happened in July 2016 when it became clear that it was either Trump or HRC. At that point, there was no good outcome.

      Disclaimer: I’m not saying HRC sucking means Trump doesn’t suck.

      1. It is cosmically unlikely that they’d be equally bad. False equivalency, for some reason I cannot fathom, always benefits Republicans, who are always worse. Let’s not feed the false equivalency dragon.

      2. I wanted Trump to lose and I prayed* Hillary wouldn’t win. So I voted for neither. Fuck that lesser-of-two-evils malarkey.

        *not literally

        1. Did you think there was a third option?

          1. No. Didn’t vote for a president in 2016.

  10. Trump is ok because he makes progTard head’s explode.

    I can imagine his character in a book by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, or J.G. Ballard – some weird dystopia future where TV reality stars rule.

    1. Running Man?

    2. “”some weird dystopia future where TV reality stars rule.”‘

      Well the Ukraine is playing their part.

      1. Well the Ukraine is playing their part.
        ———

        And a good one too!

  11. >>>There are many things to be gleaned from the 448-page report released last week by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller

    meh. why cite the Mueller Report a week+ after it was discredited?

    1. Says who?

      Go ahead. Name your source.

      1. the Mueller Report itself, and people who read English? may as well be blank pages.

        1. “Discredited.”

          You used the wrong word, Sean McLimbaugh. The correct word is “exonerated.” As in NO COLLUSION, FAKE NEWS! EXONERATED, GAME OVER — MAGA.

          1. “You used the wrong word, Sean McLimbaugh. The correct word is “exonerated.” As in NO COLLUSION, FAKE NEWS! EXONERATED, GAME OVER — MAGA.”

            Will you ever recover?

            1. You’re a caricature of a caricature, the lonely and frustrated guy who hangs out on one political site all day long, posting hundreds of thousands of comments over the years, all variations on the same dreary theme, repeating himself endlessly to an audience of one.

              1. An “audience of one”, eh?

                Guess that’d be you then–since you’re the one endlessly responding. Like a retarded dog barking at a mirror.

  12. Trump weakness was never more apparent than his inability to move legislation through Congress when his party controlled both the House and the Senate. What the Mueller report shows is the real source of that weakness. He has little knowledge of the facts and is unwilling to learn them. Part One of the report shows that the absence of collision was more a fact of incompetence than from lack of trying. Part Two shows obstruction is unclear because his orders were not followed. President Trump should go back to selling ties and steaks.

    1. “Part One of the report shows that the absence of collision was more a fact of incompetence than from lack of trying.”
      First, try defining “collusion” as other than TDS victims whining. Then please tell us what Mueller missed for two years.

      “Part Two shows obstruction is unclear because his orders were not followed.”
      Hard to ‘obstruct justice’ when there is no crime, but lefties have a hard time with logic.

      “President Trump should go back to selling ties and steaks.”
      You should go back to high-school and try for passing grades this time.

    2. Without even considering the failed coup attempt, I think he did better than the last five presidents combined.

  13. So the bottom line is that Trump listened to his advisors and declined to end the investigation even though he is head of the executive branch and it was well within his scope to be able to do so. Wanting to do something and actually doing something are entirely different. He can only be accused of obstruction if he actually attempted to shut down the probe. You cannot be accused of obstruction merely because you complain about a bogus investigation. He did not act so therefore no obstruction. It is that simple.

    1. Firing Comey is an act. Asking people to put fake memos in the file is an act. Trump acted plenty. It was his suborned aides who didn’t act—at least to the extent that they actually didn’t act. Some of them are probably the only source Mueller had about their own conduct, which in some instances would have left the aides themselves open to obstruction charges had they done what Trump asked. So I take with a grain of salt some of the denials about following up on what Trump told them to do.

    2. The bottom line is Trump is somehow navigating politics with his business acumen – and it’s working. We didn’t hire a constitutional law professor simply because only a dipshit could un-fuck all the ass wiping Barry did with our freedoms.

      A lying skeez of a salesman is a walk in the park comparatively speaking. Can you imagine another term of Trayvon’s father begging us to have “The Talk” about why politically weaponizing government agencies is the change we’ve always wanted?

  14. […] report itself. Instead of seeking answers, Graham picked up where Barr had left off in doing damage control for the […]

  15. […] report itself. Instead of seeking answers, Graham picked up where Barr had left off in doing damage control for the […]

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