The investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller would have been worthwhile if for no other finding than this: the detailed and irrefutable determination that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election in “sweeping and systematic fashion.” Let that sink in for a moment. Partisans who reflexively dismissed the investigation as a “witch hunt” should look carefully at Mueller’s findings, because they go far beyond a simple determination of the guilt or innocence of President Donald Trump.
Russian operatives were planted in this country as far back as 2014, to begin the intelligence-gathering that would result in hacking, stolen documents and an unprecedented disinformation campaign to affect voter behavior. Mueller’s report makes clear that Russia did so because it believed it would benefit from a Trump presidency, that the campaign knew of the interference and also expected to benefit.
Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Mueller and the investigators who spent nearly two years under the most difficult circumstances conducting an exhaustive review. The report is meticulous and evenhanded in its conclusions. Mueller notes, for instance, that “while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.” He also clarifies the lack of a final determination that typically would have concluded such a report. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.” He also pointedly noted that Congress still has the ability to reach a finding on obstruction.
That Attorney General William Barr took it upon himself to spin the report — before its release — as a vindication of the president, repeatedly uttering the favorite “no collusion” phrase, undermines the credibility of his office. His position demands that he be a neutral enforcer of the law, with allegiance to none but the American people.
While falling short of a criminality, the level of coincidence in the report is disturbing and deserves careful analysis and congressional follow-up. One example: Trump’s infamous campaign appeal to Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s e-mails — which he later dismissed as a joke — was followed by Russian operatives within five hours attempting to hack 15 Clinton campaign accounts.
There are other issues cited by Mueller that should receive deeper scrutiny from Congress. Contrary to the president’s earlier denials, the report found that Trump did in fact seek Mueller’s removal, fearing that the investigation would mean the end of his presidency. That potential interference was averted by then-White House Counsel Don McGahn, who refused to carry out Trump’s orders. There are other instances that show Trump’s staff stepping up when they thought legal or ethical standards might be violated. Those guardrails are important, and it is reassuring to see that they held.
Barr said he would permit Mueller to testify before Congress, and that should happen soon. He also has said he would send Congress a less redacted report than the one released to the public, but that is not enough. Congress must examine the report in its entirety if it is to live up to its duty to hold the executive branch accountable for its actions. And it should look more closely at Russia, which has yet to suffer a serious consequence from what is now known to be a well-organized attempt to affect the election’s outcome.
There is much to be weighed here. The report is the work of nearly two years and spans more than 400 pages. It will require time to be evaluated fully, partisan pronouncements for and against its value notwithstanding. We hope all sides will take a deep breath, proceed carefully and remember that their ultimate duty is to protect this country and its institutions.