Mueller Report: So, Now What?

With the Mueller report delivered and summarized by Attorney General Robert Barr – and no new legal charges coming against the president – Republicans have spent the last 24 hours doing victory laps of one kind or another. While it hasn’t happened yet, we can expect a slew of requests, entreaties, and demands from the GOP for conservative critics of Trump to “come home” and to reunite the movement so it is fully behind Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020.

To that, this “Never Trump” conservative can only respond thusly: are you f**king kidding me?

Trump is Still Trump

First and foremost, this report – which, as I discuss in detail later, we still haven’t actually seen – does not change a single Trump policy, nor does it change any behavior. Donald Trump is still the same person, the same politician, and the same president today that he was Friday. To wit, he is still…

  • A candidate and a president who actions, words, and policies lead intelligent Americans to no other logical conclusion other than that he is a racist
  • A president whose signature domestic achievement is a tax bill that learned all the wrong lessons of the Bush tax cuts (i.e., the inclusion of expiration dates) and made the tax code more complicated rather than less
  • A president whose behavior has utterly shattered conventions of political behavior upon which our assumptions of limited and democratic governance depend
  • A president who has usurped Congressional power or appropriation in a way that would make Barack Obama blush, but blazes a trail for all sorts of future usurpations by presidents left, right, and center
  • A president who has upended decades, if not centuries, of American foreign policy by preferring dictators to democracies, causing incalculable damage to the democratic world and to American interests abroad
  • A president who has imposed more tariff increases than any Administration since Herbert Hoover’s, with promises of even more coming in the near future
  • A president who has railed against his own Federal Reserve Chairman and has nominated a political sycophant to the Board of Governors
  • A president whose immigration policy is an immature, poorly thought out combination of the aforementioned bigotry and dime-store Malthusianism

All of these things were true on Friday. None of them were rendered false by William Barr’s letter to Congress.

Trump defenders need to recognize that those of us who still oppose him have policy reasons for doing so, not just personal reasons. They have spent so much time trying to explain away or outright defend who Trump is that they have lost sight of what Trump does. We have not; that is why we will continue to oppose him today as much as we did three days ago.

Questions Arising from the Barr Letter

That said, perceptions of the Trump Administration will change from the Barr letter on Mueller’s report. First and foremost, most Americans will now assume (perhaps incorrectly, as I note later in this piece) that Trump did not have a corrupt motive behind his Russia policy. Is that really supposed to make us feel better? As David Frum notes in his reaction to all this in The Atlantic (emphasis in original)…

The prize of a Trump presidency must have glittered alluringly, indeed, to Putin and his associates. Why? Did they admire Trump’s anti-NATO, anti–European Union, anti-ally, pro-Bashar al-Assad, pro-Putin ideology? Were they attracted by his contempt for the rule of law and dislike of democracy?

Indeed, for some of us, the possibility that Donald Trump’s fealty to Putin is driven by genuine belief that friendships with Putin and Kim Jong-un are better for America than NATO and our allies around the world is even more terrifying than the alternative.

This, of course, assumes the Mueller report says what Barr claims it says – or, to be more precise, that it says what initial media reports say Barr’s letter claims it says. Ken White, a former federal prosecutor himself, has noted some issues where Mueller’s report is actually quoted (The Atlantic). In particular, regarding the very question of collusion, which Mueller says the investigation “did not establish” (emphasis in original)…

Trump’s triumphant supporters notwithstanding, we don’t yet know what that means. When prosecutors say that an investigation “did not establish” something, that doesn’t mean that they concluded it didn’t happen, or even that they don’t believe it happened. It means that the investigation didn’t produce enough information to prove that it happened. Without seeing Mueller’s full report, we don’t know whether this is a firm conclusion about lack of coordination or a frank admission of insufficient evidence. The difference is meaningful, both as a matter of history and because it might determine how much further Democrats in Congress are willing to push committee investigations of the matter.

White also noted that where the question of obstruction is concerned, even Barr admitted that Mueller “did not exonerate” Trump. Moreover (emphasis in original)…

Why would Mueller spend so much time investigating obstruction of justice but not reach a conclusion? We won’t know until we read his report. But Mueller, a career G-man, is fundamentally legally conservative. That means he has a narrow view of his own role and a healthy respect for the authority of the other branches of government. He might believe that the evaluation is so inherently political that no conclusion he could offer would ever be seen as legitimate, and that the matter is better resolved through Congress’s constitutional authority to impeach (or not) the president. Even if Mueller didn’t make an explicit recommendation, we’ll probably be able to infer his conclusions by reviewing how he marshaled the evidence for and against guilt. Prosecutors, as a rule, are not good at neutral renditions of facts.

All in all, this is a very slender reed for Trump defenders. It is also highly flimsy as any kind of cover for Trump critics who would consider crossing over to his side for 2020.

Most importantly, even if White’s speculation is incorrect and the president is truly “in the clear,” it does not change a single thing Donald Trump has done as president. He still coddles dictators in a dangerous manner. He still has unnerving and damaging contempt for our democratic allies. He has still usurped Congress’ power of the purse. He has still enacted damaging changes to the tax code. He has still shattered necessary political conventions. He is still imposing his protectionist and isolationist nonsense on the nation and the world, with harrowing consequences.

The idea that we should just forget all of that and drink the Trump Kool-Aid because of a four-page summary of a still unseen report is simply untenable.