This Thursday, the much-anticipated report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller about the Russian conspiracy opened a window to the hidden details of an explosive investigation (Moscow’s interference with the 2016 presidential elections and whether there was a conspiracy with the current president) and the life and miseries of Donald Trump’s White House. The document exonerates the Republican of conspiring with the Kremlin, but describes how he tried to interfere in the investigations, including his request that Mueller be fired, and how he reached moments of desperation. “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f-cked,” he said.
The Justice Department published the report in full on Maundy Thursday, with Congress in recess and half the country preparing for a long weekend, but it disrupted every agenda in Washington. Those approximately 400 pages bring together 22 months of investigation concerning a corrosive issue: whether or not the president of the United States cooperated with Russia, the old Cold War enemy, to interfere in the presidential elections in his favor. This version has redacted passages − for reasons of security or privacy, among others − but at the same time that it became available on the government website, it was already possible to order the first edited copies through Barnes and Noble or The Washington Post.
No report had shaken politics in this way since 1998, when the prosecutor Kenneth Starr filed 11 charges, including lying about his sexual relations with the young Monica Lewinsky, to remove Bill Clinton. Some aspects of this 2019 journey resemble that time; for example, when it became known that U.S. Attorney General William Barr planned to submit the document to Congress as a compact disc.
There are no charges against the president this time. This became clear when Mueller submitted his report to the Department of Justice on March 22 and the attorney general explained the principal conclusions in a letter two days later. But the report does present a coincidence of unorthodox contacts between the Trump circle and people close to the Russian government. It showcases the many lies that suspects or witnesses told and exposes the president's efforts to interfere in the investigations. In particular, it mentions a total of 10 incidents involving Trump that, in Mueller’s opinion, could be evidence to support an accusation of obstruction of justice. However, the special counsel was not able to reach that conclusion after his detailed undertaking of almost two years but, instead, limited himself to describing the events and providing a theoretical framework.
The document has a collection of politically vitriolic scenes. On June 17, 2017, with the special counsel investigation recently activated, the president called Don McGahn, former White House lawyer, to ask him to fire Mueller. Trump was at Camp David at the time and asked McGahn − who resigned afterwards − to talk with the second in command at the Justice department, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and tell him that Mueller had conflicts of interest, according to testimony from the former employee. Mueller also points out that Trump tried to influence the witnesses.
“Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations,” Mueller stated in the first volume of the report. "The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” he added.
When facing the press, Barr defended his decision to not accuse the president of the crime of obstruction of justice, emphasizing that the decision had been based on the theoretical framework described by Mueller in the report, in spite of the fact that he was not sharing all of it, he added. “As the Special Counsel's report makes clear, the Russian government sought to interfere in our election. But thanks to the special counsel's thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign − or the knowing assistance of any other Americans for that matter.”
The attorney general appeared before the press at 9:30 a.m., when neither the press nor the public nor the legislators had been able to take even one look at the report in question, which would be submitted at 11 a.m. In his statement, threshing out the charges one by one related to the Russian conspiracy and repeating for each of them that the report had not shown proof of coordination with the Republican president, he placed dramatic emphasis on the words, centering on the exoneration of the president: “President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates.”
The Democrats, who have requested Mueller’s appearance before Congress and the publication of the unredacted report, criticized Barr this Thursday and questioned his impartiality. This was already in question when he took office. Trump nominated the attorney general in November, after firing Jeff Sessions with whom he was annoyed precisely because of his handling of the Russian conspiracy. Barr, who had already been an attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, aroused suspicions because, among other things, he wrote an essay this past summer opposing the investigation of Trump over the Russian conspiracy.
The Russian investigation ended up in Mueller’s hands in May 2017, due to a decision by Rosenstein, who was the top supervisor on the case after Sessions recused himself due to having failed to inform Congress about his meeting in Moscow with the Russian ambassador. In May, Trump had fired James Comey, director of the FBI, which raised suspicions about obstruction of justice, and Rosenstein opted for an independent investigation in order to avoid any doubt. When that happened, Trump was lost. “Oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f-cked,” he said in a meeting, according to notes from Jody Hunt, chief of staff for Sessions. He reproached Sessions, “You were supposed to protect me,”
The report does not question in any way Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. In January 2017, before Trump had even been sworn in, U.S. intelligence services and the FBI publicly indicated that Vladimir Putin was responsible for a campaign of interference in the elections with the objective of favoring the New York businessman. The interference consisted above all of propaganda and cyber attacks, including the theft of emails from the Democrats in order to disparage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The Russian conspiracy became an investigation about the president and his possible collusion with the Kremlin shortly afterward, when information came to light about meetings and unorthodox contacts with members of Trump’s circle.
For the president, the narrative became worse this Thursday with all of the details exposed to the public. Mueller concluded that Comey was fired because he refused to state publicly that Trump was not under investigation. The document also reviews the role of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and their controversial meetings with people close to the Kremlin, such as their contacts with WikiLeaks, the platform that published the emails stolen from the Democratic Party. The report even notes that Michael Flynn, who was briefly national security advisor to Trump and resigned because of this case, tried to obtain Clinton’s deleted emails on Trump’s orders.
The overall conclusion, however, has not changed: Trump has emerged unscathed by all of the charges planned against him and his circle. Investigators do not see those incidents as sufficient to establish collusion. Even before the report was published, Trump proclaimed victory in his peculiar style, tweeting a picture of himself as an epic figure walking into a cloud, back turned to the viewer and with the following message, using the typography from the series “Game of Thrones”: “No collusion, No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats − GAME OVER.” But the political battle will continue on the Capitol and, for many, in prison and in the courts. Mueller’s long and complex investigations have lifted many rugs and have resulted in accusing about 30 people of different crimes and in referring up to 14 cases of a different nature to other departments.