There has been much crowing from Trumpsters on the right and Russiagate skeptics on the left about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. That is, the three-and-a-half-page letter Attorney General Bill Barr sent to Congress summarizing Mueller’s work. (The report itself remains secret and is reportedly over 300 pages.) Pointing to Barr’s citation of a single, partial sentence from the report (“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”), Trump and his partisans, as well as the small number of lefty Russiagate deniers, have declared that because Mueller found no direct collaboration, the Trump-Russia scandal is kaput. Some have even declared it was a hoax—and a gargantuan media con job—from the start.
These critics are wrong. And here’s an easy way to tell whether they are engaging in honest discourse. Two fundamental facts were established long before Mueller completed his investigation. First, the Russians attacked an American election in order to sow chaos, hurt Hillary Clinton, and help Donald Trump. Second, Trump and his top advisers during the campaign repeatedly denied this attack was underway, echoing and amplifying Moscow disinformation (the false claim that Russia was not attacking). Whether or not the Trumpers were directly in cahoots with the Russian government, they ran interference for Vladimir Putin’s assault on the United States, and they even did so after the intelligence community had briefed Trump on Russia’s culpability. So to determine if the Barr triumphalists are acting in good faith, you need only ask them a simple question: do you accept these basic facts and acknowledge the profound seriousness of each one?
President Trump’s rallies have always been a peek into his unhinged, angry soul — confirmation that he operates outside the bounds of civilized behavior and rationality. His Michigan performance on Thursday might have been his worst to date, but he’s certainly getting worse with time. Trump is now consumed with vengeance and fury, convinced (without actually seeing special Robert S. Mueller III’s report) that it provides complete exoneration. The part wherein Mueller says he does not exonerate Trump of obstruction and news that Mueller compiled hundreds of pages of evidence aren’t going to slow him or his sycophantic chorus down. In Michigan, he was especially toxic.
Democrats should be absolutely delighted with Trump’s descent into Crazyland. Trump’s already abysmal rating with women will no doubt fall further as he plays the role of emotionally abusive ex-spouse. Many of them wouldn’t give this kind of character their phone number or leave their house plants in his care — let alone give him the nuclear codes for six more years. Trump did not deliver a marvelous health-care plan (in fact, he threatens to leave millions without health coverage if his court case to invalidate the Affordable Care Act succeeds). He has started a trade war. Coal is still a dying industry. The sugar high from his mammoth tax cuts is already wearing off. He mocks climate change as the country drowns, burns and gets blown away by extreme weather. If 53 percent of Americans, according to the Quinnipiac poll, say they are certain not to vote for him, they might soon have company. So-called “soft” Trump supporters’ disgust might rise as his emotional and intellectual state deteriorates. And if the economy no longer produces ample distraction, they might simply sit home and watch from afar as he and his party hurl themselves into political oblivion.
Barr’s summary of the Mueller report is the most favorable interpretation Trump is likely to get. The report itself may be a catalogue of horrible judgment, unethical behavior and noncriminal corruption. It may put Trump Inc. in a very bad light. If and when it comes out in full. In the meantime, the Trump administration is defendant, judge and jury. The full report, however, may require revised judgments from some of Trump’s critics, as well. Perhaps the president is not a foreign agent or a criminal mastermind. Perhaps he is a weak leader who surrounds himself with clowns and criminals. Perhaps his lack of character attracts and enables other corrupt men. Perhaps he is more pathetic than dictatorial, more fool than knave. Perhaps behind the compulsive, simplistic, narcissistic exterior, there is a compulsive, simplistic, narcissistic interior. Perhaps he has moved beyond good and evil, enforcing only one code: loyalty to his person. Integrity and competence be damned. All this may not be criminal. But it mocks our country in a different way.
MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace on Friday admitted she feels “physically sick” listening to President Donald Trump’s talking point that Russia’s interference on behalf of his 2016 campaign was a “hoax.” Wallace played a clip of Trump speaking with Linda McMahon while vacationing at Mar-a-Largo. “This was a hoax, this was a witch hunt and I have absolutely nothing to hide,” Trump falsely claimed. Frank Figiliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, explained the danger in Trump’s “hoax” claims. “Here is the problem that, the findings of the special counsel were that our foreign adversary went to great extreme lengths to meddle in our election,” he reminded. “And so, if the public perceived this all as a hoax and forgets the incredible findings that Mueller had about the degree to which we were messed with, then we have lost the value of this inquiry.” “We’re being attacked by a foreign adversary,” he argued. “We have to stop the spin out of Washington and we’ve got to become more educated consumers of information.” Wallace agreed. “It is chilling and it makes me feel physically sick to think about the idea that the public will take from Donald Trump’s lunatic tirade that the Russian role was a hoax,” she explained. Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist said, “in history he will go down as the president that was elected by a hostile foreign government.”
In all cases, it boils down to this: Trump’s wrongdoing was too obvious, ham-handed and pervasive to be criminal. The guy’s a con artist — what did you expect? It’s not bank fraud or conspiracy or obstruction of justice: It’s Trump being Trump. There’s a downside to this, though, as Trump now sees. The same reputation for being a scoundrel that protects him from scandals simultaneously denies him credibility and respect. Barr claims that Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia, and Barr decided that the evidence Mueller presented did not merit charging Trump with obstruction of justice. Trump now claims “complete and total exoneration,” and it appears he earned at least partial exoneration.
But the public isn’t impressed. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted at the time Barr’s summary came out found Trump’s disapproval rate remained unchanged, at 55 percent, from earlier in the month and earlier this year. A CNN poll, meanwhile, finds that 56 percent say Trump has not been exonerated of conspiring with Russia, even though Barr says Mueller found no criminal conspiracy. And only 13 percent say Mueller’s findings will sway their 2020 vote — 7 percent for Trump and 6 percent against. If Trump supposed his troubles would end with the Mueller probe, he confused consequence and cause. Mueller was a consequence — one of many. The cause is a president who is erratic, impulsive and fundamentally dishonest. Even a number of his supporters, polling indicates, don’t regard him as honest or admirable but back him for partisan reasons.
Suppose a special prosecutor in the Obama administration had filed a 400-page report about crimes possibly committed by President Barack Obama, and Obama appointees sat on the report while offering a “nothing to see here” summary. Trump would no doubt have speculated that the prosecutor had found evidence that Obama had conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald, murdered both Vince Foster and Antonin Scalia, was an operative of both Islamic State and the “deep state,” ran a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant, and was shown by DNA to be Osama bin Laden’s twin brother. And most people would have just figured that was Trump being Trump. Now, Trump claims “total and complete exoneration” in the Mueller probe. And most people just figure this is Trump being Trump. In this sense, he already carries a disclaimer, unwritten but understood by all. Warning: This man is a charlatan.
We may never know for sure whether Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to obtain Russia’s help in the 2016 election, in return for, say, Trump’s help in weakening NATO and not interfering against Russian aggression in Ukraine. Trump and his propaganda machine at Fox News have repeatedly conjured up a “witch hunt” and maintained a drumbeat of “no collusion,” which already has mired Robert Mueller’s report in a fog of alt-interpretation and epistemological confusion. What’s “collusion?” What’s illegal? Has Trump obstructed justice? Has he been vindicated? What did Mueller conclude, exactly? What did he mean? The real danger is that as attention inevitably turns to the 2020 campaign, controversy over the report will obscure the far more basic issues of Trump’s competence and character.
An American president is not just the chief executive of the United States, and the office he (eventually she) holds is not just a bully pulpit to advance policy ideas. He is also a moral leader, and the office is a moral pulpit invested with meaning about the common good. A president’s most fundamental responsibility is to protect our system of government. Trump has weakened that system. As George Washington’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, explained, the first president believed he had been entrusted with something of immense intrinsic worth, and that his duty was to uphold it for its own sake and over the long term. He led by moral example. Few of our subsequent presidents have come close to the example Washington set, but none to date has been as far from that standard as Trump.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, when accused of failing to pay his income taxes, Trump responded “that makes me smart.” His comment conveyed a message to millions of Americans: that paying taxes in full is not an obligation of citizenship. Trump boasted about giving money to politicians so they would do whatever he wanted. “When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” In other words, it’s perfectly OK for business leaders to pay off politicians, regardless of the effect on our democracy. Trump sent another message by refusing to reveal his tax returns during the campaign or even when he took office, or to put his businesses into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest, and by his overt willingness to make money off his presidency by having foreign diplomats stay at his Washington hotel, and promoting his various golf clubs. These were not just ethical lapses. They directly undermined the common good by reducing the public’s trust in the office of the president. A president’s most fundamental responsibility is to uphold and protect our system of government. Trump has weakened that system.
I have two videos for you. In less than three minutes, total, they present the full lunatic tribalism that is American society. The symmetry here is perfect. Absolutely perfect. The only thing we really know from Bob Mueller’s lips is that on the subject of obstruction: “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” That’s eerily similar to the words said by the prosecutor who dismissed the charges against Smollett, saying that he “does not believe [Smollett] is innocent.” Now you can believe that both of these men have been judged as innocent because the legal system has declined to prosecute them. Or you can believe that both of them can be viewed with suspicion because the official verdict of the legal system is not the last word in actual culpability. But you cannot claim that one of them must now be treated as totally and completely
innocent but that the other is clearly guilty. Which is what most of America seems to be doing. Including the president of the United States. Barely 72 hours after TOTAL EXONERATION he demanded that federal investigators overturn the verdict of local law enforcement because he was positive that Jussie Smollett had not been, at all, in any way, even partially exonerated.
Though why Trump would trust the FBI—an organization Trump claims is full of “dirty cops” who tried to commit “treason”—to investigate Smollett is beyond me. Then again, maybe we should take Trump’s criticisms of the FBI seriously, but not literally. Maybe FBI agents are only “dirty” in the same way that Mexico is “paying” for the “concrete wall” on America’s southern border. Or maybe it’s best not to think too hard about these things. Because if you did, you’d come to the conclusion that American political life is broken and that people who defend one of these men to the hilt while railing against the other—without even a hint of self-awareness—will get exactly the sort of government they deserve. Maybe you’d decide that this is what decline looks like.