The Mueller report, or what is known of it so far, removes the worst-case scenarios that had been hanging over President Donald Trump’s head. But it does not fully exonerate him. Nor does it answer many of the questions Americans still have about the conduct of their president and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Here are five of them:
1) If there was no conspiracy, why did President Donald Trump try so desperately to vilify special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation?
Mueller, a former FBI director and senior Justice Department official, is a fair-minded law enforcement professional not apt to rush to conclusions or overplay his hand. And presumably Trump knew that Mueller would find little if any criminal collusion. Yet Trump repeatedly denounced Mueller, calling him weak and characterizing his probe as a witch hunt.
One explanation is that Trump was afraid that Mueller would go further than he did on the obstruction of justice argument, or that the special counsel might uncover troubling Russia-related behavior not directly related to the election. Another is simply that Trump was trying to “work the refs” and discredit any adverse findings in advance. No one, of course, likes to be investigated, particularly if the implication is that a foreign adversary helped him win the presidency.
In any event, Trump went from trashing the investigation as recently as last week to allowing on Monday that Mueller had acted honorably.
2) If there was no conspiracy, why did so many Trump aides lie to prosecutors or lawmakers?
Six Trump aides pleaded guilty or were indicted when a little honesty could have saved them much grief. Perhaps the best explanation here is simply that Trump’s campaign attracted an array of shady operators, some of whom do not appear to be the sharpest knives in the drawer. Many might have lied simply because they were selected primarily for their loyalty to Trump rather than their competence, and they regarded lying to protect him as a primary responsibility.
By many accounts, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was a shambolic operation that might have been too inept to pull off a sophisticated criminal conspiracy even if it wanted to.
3) Why was Trump not subpoenaed?
The president and his lawyers answered questions in writing, but Trump was never compelled to testify in person, under oath. The question of whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed has never been resolved by courts. This is in part because past presidents — including Ulysses Grant, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — have obviated the need by voluntarily testifying.
But Trump declined to play by the rules set by his predecessors. The Supreme Court, in its 1997 ruling in Clinton v. Jones, suggested that presidents may be subject to subpoenas. The absence of Trump’s testimony is a curious omission and a possible road map for future presidents hoping to skirt the law.
We’d like to know more about Mueller’s reasoning for this decision.
4) Why did Attorney General William Barr insert himself into the obstruction of justice question?
Last June, Barr wrote a memo arguing that Trump’s behavior regarding ousted FBI chief James Comey — asking Comey to be a loyal partisan and then firing him when he refused — didn’t constitute obstruction. That memo, seen by some critics as an inappropriate job application for a second stint as attorney general, comes into play now.
Barr’s letter summarizing Mueller’s report was dismissive of the obstruction case. It is understandable that Mueller would take a pass on the obstruction question, as it presented constitutional complexities above the purview of a special counsel. Even so, it’s not clear why Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, himself an actor in the Comey firing, felt compelled to quickly resolve the obstruction question in Trump’s favor.
5) Why is Trump so solicitous of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin?
Russia is indisputably a hostile nation that annexes neighbors, opposes U.S. interests, and undermines the spread of democracy. Also indisputable, and contained in the Mueller report, is that its agents worked tirelessly to interfere with the 2016 election and influence it in Trump’s favor. Yet last year Trump stood next to the Russian leader in Helsinki and said he believed Putin instead of U.S. law enforcement officials.
Trump has also had multiple meetings with Putin for which there is no official record. Maybe Trump simply likes people who support him. Or maybe his inexplicable affinity for Putin has to do with money, such as the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project that Trump was pursuing well into 2016.
These aren’t the only questions hanging in the air. Among the others: How personally was Putin involved in the election interference? How close did the Mueller team come to finding collusion? Why did Trump’s campaign manager share political polling data with a Russian associate?
The best ways to answer these lingering questions are to make the full report public, and to have Mueller and Barr testify before Congress about the decisions they made along the way.
— By Dan Carney for the Editorial Board
If you can’t see this reader poll, please refresh your page.