The Mueller report is both far better and far worse for Donald Trump than I expected from Bill Barr’s summary of it a few weeks ago and his press conference about it this morning.
It’s far worse because Barr made it sound as though it were a relatively dispassionate explanation of facts and findings, and it’s not really that at all. Rather, it’s a series of narrative accounts of what happened with Russia in 2016 and what happened just before and after Robert Mueller was appointed independent counsel in 2017. And the narrative accounts, almost all of them, make Trump look terrible.
He abuses his staff, muses about doing patently illegal things, orders his underlings to lie or to issue deceitful statements and letters, hints at pardoning people in exchange for silence, and the like. Awful. It’s just awful. For every Trump-skeptical person who finds himself pleasantly surprised by Trump’s performance on certain issues, Israel in particular, the report is a reminder that there are plenty of unpleasant non-surprises in his conduct to brush you back on your heels.
And yet the report is also very good news for Trump in this one sense. I would say that the person or persons who wrote it are sickened by him. The tone and the spirit of the narrative accounts suggest the writer was typing the story in a mood of enraged disbelief. Why is this good? Because it suggests the Mueller team really, really, really wanted to nail Trump with this report. They hate him and they want him gone. And yet… they just couldn’t get to obstruction.
Every discussion of his misbehavior nonetheless has to conclude that, while Trump seemed to want to obstruct justice in this or that or the other way, he just. didn’t. do. it. in the end.
He floated pardons but didn’t issue them, and he didn’t buy anyone’s silence. He kind of ordered his White House counsel to get rid of Mueller, but Don McGahn didn’t do it and Trump didn’t press the question until the story was leaked many months later and he demanded McGahn deny it. He never asserted executive privilege. In no way that would have involved the president demonstrating “corrupt intent” to do so was Mueller’s probe obstructed.
Anti-Trumpers and Democrats can rage all they like from now until 2025 about how the report reveals Trump should be impeached because he’s so rotten, but he’s not going to be because the report does not reveal he committed any crime. Behaving recklessly and irresponsibly and deceitfully is bad, but as is true of so much else about Donald Trump, there isn’t a voter in America who didn’t know he was all of those things on Election Day. His election won’t be undone because he’s a jerk. That’s what the Mueller report really makes clear—both that he’s a jerk and that he’s a legitimate president.