Mueller report: winners and losers
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on President Trump’s ties to Russia is out, after what felt like an eternity of waiting. Of course, the report is massive — 400 pages, roughly — and hard to get through quickly. So what do its findings ultimately mean for President Trump, his top aides, and all the other players in the long-running Russia saga?
Well, we here at Vox have been combing through the report to answer those questions. And there’s a lot in there, things that shed light on questions ranging from whether the president committed obstruction (quite possibly) to why Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower wasn’t illegal (Junior is too ignorant, more or less) to whether the media bungled this entire story (no, surprisingly!).
So what follows is a kind of one-stop shop for understanding Mueller, through the lens of seven of the most important people and institutions that have been a part of the Trump Russia scandal — a guide to who comes out looking better, and who comes out looking a whole lot worse.
Loser: President Donald Trump
Let’s be clear: This report is not what the president’s opponents were hoping.
They wanted slam-dunk proof that Trump was involved in Russia’s election hack and then, later, criminally obstructed the investigation into election hacking. That’s not what the report says, and the #resistance dream of Mueller saving them for their Trump nightmare is well and truly dead.
But that’s the wrong benchmark to use in assessing the report’s effect on Trump. Given that Mueller was unlikely to charge a sitting president with a crime, and the Republican majority in the Senate effectively immunizes the president from removal from office via impeachment, it wasn’t reasonable to expect the report to destroy the Trump presidency.
The better standard is, instead, the one Trump set for himself. For weeks, he’s been repeating “no collusion and no obstruction” like it’s a mantra, with the word “exoneration” sprinkled in here and there. For this report to be a win for him, it would have to vindicate those claims — to really conclude that there was neither collusion nor obstruction.
The report didn’t do that. In fact, Mueller’s accounting of Trump’s conduct throughout this entire saga makes the president look even worse than he did before its release — making him, in our view, a clear loser.
The first half of the report, on the broad “collusion” question, doesn’t exonerate Trump for the simple reason that it doesn’t come to a conclusion at all on “collusion.” To Mueller’s mind, the term is not precise enough, nor does it fall within the ambit of what was essentially a criminal investigation. Instead, it concludes that there is insufficient evidence that Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy with Russia or that his campaign coordinated on election interference — a narrow finding rather than the complete exoneration Trump wanted.
The report also contains some damning new information about Trump campaign links to Russia. We learned, for example, that two Trump campaign officials, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates, were regularly providing polling information to a Russian national whom Gates believed to be a “spy.”
Overall, the report documents a series of bungled and abortive attempts to create ties between Trump and Russia, a situation in which the two sides worked to reach out to each other without ever developing a formal arrangement to coordinate.
It’s not “no collusion,” in short. And as rough as that finding is for Trump, the obstruction section is considerably worse.
The Mueller team examines 10 situations where Trump arguably obstructed justice, ranging from the firing of FBI Director James Comey to the attempted firing of Mueller to publicly praising Manafort for not “flipping.” Unlike in the collusion section, where Mueller asserts he has insufficient evidence to charge a crime, the special counsel declines to conclude one way or another — partly because he feels it isn’t legal for him to recommend indictment of the president.
But if you read between the lines of the report, it looks like Mueller believes Trump either came damn close to committing obstruction or may have done so outright. Read this section, for example, which opens with the bald assertion that they found “multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”:
The argument here isn’t that the president’s hands are clean or that he behaved ethically in this situation. Rather, it’s that Trump failed to obstruct justice in these cases because other officials ignored him or his aides outright refused to follow his orders. This isn’t an exoneration of the president; it’s suggesting he had criminal intent but was too incompetent to act on it.
This is not a “no collusion, no obstruction” finding. It’s more like “debatably collusion, almost-if-not-outright obstruction” — and that’s a very bad look for the holder of the highest office in the land.
Winner: Robert Mueller
It’s useful to contrast the reputation that Robert Mueller has, exiting this investigation, with the reputation that Kenneth Starr has had since his report’s unveiling in 1998. Starr has his defenders and admirers — and a former deputy is now a Supreme Court justice — but he is a hugely polarizing figure, loathed by partisan Democrats and even many Republicans who thought his rush to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sexual misconduct was at best a political blunder and at worst a cheapening of the impeachment process. It didn’t help that he further dirtied his reputation by helping cover up a rampant culture of sexual assault at Baylor University, where he served as president.
Mueller has his critics, for sure — but even Donald Trump is trumpeting his conclusions. The argument is not “Mueller’s negative implications about me are false because he’s a partisan liar,” but “see, Mueller didn’t explicitly say I colluded, I am vindicated!”
The defense implicitly relies on trust in Mueller, and on bipartisan respect for him and his fairness. Even partisans of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory posited Mueller as their hero secretly using the investigation to uncover sexual abuse by Democrats.
In the end, Mueller not only was able to complete his investigation but appears to have walked away from a highly contentious investigation of a divisive president with the respect of leaders in both parties, and his word and conclusions treated as basically final by most involved. That’s sort of remarkable.
Loser: congressional Democrats
In a sense, the Mueller report left the House Democratic majority in much the same place it was in before the report’s release: aware that Trump probably tried to interfere in meaningful and troubling ways with investigations into his conduct, and unsure what to do with that knowledge.
But the Mueller report should add some urgency to that dilemma. For months, when asked about impeachment, leaders like Nancy Pelosi deferred to Mueller, saying the special counsel had to finish his work. Now Mueller has hit the ball back to her.
Mueller and his team conclude with a lengthy argument that Congress may prohibit obstruction of justice by the president: “With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
The report mostly discusses the possibility of prosecuting Trump after he leaves office. “A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a President leaves office,” the report notes, adding, “Impeachment is also a drastic and rarely invoked remedy, and Congress is not restricted to relying only on impeachment, rather than making criminal law applicable to a former President.”
But by laying out 10 instances in which Trump potentially obstructed justice, Mueller also gives Democrats 10 plausible articles of impeachment, should they choose to file them. Mueller, of course, does not argue that Democrats should file and pursue such articles. But as a political matter, Democrats would be able to point to those instances he identified as a basis for a decision to pursue impeachment.
That said, the familiar political barriers to impeachment remain. Moderate Democrats might fear that voting to impeach would imperil their reelection. And pragmatic Democrats of whatever ideology might fear that even if they vote to impeach, the Senate, still controlled by Republicans, will never vote to convict, making impeachment a statement more than a real tool to force Trump out of office.
Mueller’s report doesn’t answer the question of whether to pursue impeachment for Democrats — and it was never going to. That was always a political choice that would come down to the convictions and priorities of Democratic leadership, rather than the specific facts Mueller put forward.
Loser: Sarah Sanders
The Mueller report points out numerous instances in which Donald Trump himself lied — no surprise there. But it also includes several especially galling moments when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did his lying for him.
In one case, Sanders effectively admitted that she lied when she claimed the rank and file of the FBI wanted James Comey gone:
“Not founded on anything” sounds pretty bad! But that’s not all. There was also the time Sanders denied that Trump had dictated his son Donald Jr.’s initial, highly inaccurate statement about the Trump Tower meeting, when he did in fact dictate it:
In a third instance, Sanders repeated a lie told to her by Trump, specifically that he wasn’t considering firing Mueller when he really was; it’s less clear in this case than the other ones, especially the first, that she knew she was spreading a falsehood, but it’s still very much not great:
Being press secretary is a tough job, especially when, as is often the case with presidents, your boss is a liar. But it’s rare to have a special counsel call you out for spreading falsehoods on three separate occasions. If nothing else, the report should force reporters to downgrade their confidence in anything Sanders says as press secretary. Ideally, they’d stop repeating her statements as fact altogether.
Winner (with some big exceptions): the media
“Did the media bungle the Russia story” has been a major debate at least since Attorney General Barr first announced his (slanted) summary of the Mueller report a few weeks ago. It’s a hard question to answer, not least because “the media” is a vast enterprise including hundreds of outlets and thousands of reporters, some of whom certainly bungled the story. This, for instance, has not held up very well:
My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for @StevenKBannon. I am pro-life and take no pleasure in reporting this.
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) July 19, 2017
But aside from the more, uh, creative conspiracy theorists out there like Mensch, and some of the more elaborate theories floated in the mainstream press (like that Trump has been a Russian asset for decades), you can read the report as confirming a number of incremental scoops by reporters following this story over the past couple of years.
Indeed, the report reads as less revelatory than it felt like it should be precisely because it confirms reporting we’ve known about for a long time. To name just a few examples:
And on and on and on.
The report didn’t vindicate every report on the investigation. It explicitly states that the investigation found no evidence that Trump “directed or aided” false testimony by Michael Cohen, contradicting a report from BuzzFeed. It also states that Cohen never traveled to Prague, contradicting a claim in the Steele dossier that BuzzFeed published and that McClatchy later claimed to confirm. And there’s no indication in the report that the Guardian’s story claiming that Manafort visited Julian Assange was accurate.
But overall, if you were casually following the news on Russia over the past two years, you’d probably get a pretty good idea of some of the major contacts between the campaign and Russia, the activities Russia engaged in to influence the election, and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation that the Mueller report ultimately outlines.
Winners (mostly): Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.
In the end, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner — Trump’s son and son-in-law, who were widely seen as likely targets of the investigation — avoided getting indicted by Mueller and his team, putting them a few steps ahead of the likes of Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Legally speaking, they’re out of the woods.
So they come out at least slightly ahead, even though the report nonetheless makes it clear that the office of special counsel considered a few grounds on which they could have been indicted.
The special counsel’s office considered whether the Trump Tower meeting attended by Don Jr., Kushner, and Paul Manafort, as well as a second activity that the report redacts, “constituted prosecutable violations of the campaign-finance laws.” The report concludes that the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton offered in that meeting might be considered a thing of value, and thus qualify as a contribution in violation of campaign finance law, but that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the meeting participants “had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful.”
If one wanted to be glib, this could be interpreted as saying that Kushner and Junior would’ve broken the law if they’d been informed enough to understand that they were breaking it — or, at least, if they had left evidence that they knew that much.
Kushner also has to deal with the embarrassment of this anecdote, where he forgets the Russian ambassador’s name and, instead of Googling it, insists on emailing a think tank fellow:
The report also confirmed that Kushner met with Russian oligarch Sergey Gorkov, the head of the government-owned bank VEB. The report does not come to any conclusion about the nature of the meeting, which occurred after Kushner’s appointment as a White House adviser. The report does state, however, that Gorkov literally gave Kushner dirt, specifically soil from the town in Belarus to which Kushner traces his roots.
The meeting doesn’t sound completely on the up-and-up, but when the alternative was an indictment, that’s still a victory.