What to Expect from the Mueller Report

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is coming Thursday. If Attorney General William Barr’s summary is to be believed, those hoping for a grand expose of collusion between President Trump and Russia will be disappointed. But, it will not be the complete exoneration Mr. Trump claimed either. The picture of Mr. Trump and his team it will paint, while not criminal, is likely to be unflattering. This realization may be the motivation for Mr. Trump’s renewed attacks on Mr. Mueller and his team.

Unflattering, But Not Illegal

Mr. Mueller’s report will likely depict the Trump campaign as a group of unscrupulous neophytes blundering around the fringes of Russia’s election meddling efforts. It may show that Mr. Trump welcomed Russia’s help and was anxious to avoid displeasing Moscow. While no one in Trump world directly conspired with the Kremlin, they would have been more than willing to do so had they been given the opportunity. This is not criminal conspiracy, but it could be politically embarrassing all the same.

The enthusiasm within Trump-world for Russia’s intervention is apparent in what we know already. The infamous Trump Tower meeting is perhaps the starkest example. When an acquaintance offered Donald Trump, Jr. damaging information about Hillary Clinton, courtesy of the Russian government as part of its “support for Mr. Trump,” his response was “I love it.” He scheduled a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who was to deliver the goods. While the meeting was a bust and the dirt on Hillary never materialized, the episode demonstrates the Trump Campaign’s ambivalence about receiving the assistance of a foreign adversary and illustrates an “enemy-of-my-enemy is my friend” mindset that, although not illegal, many would find morally repugnant.

Further, Mr. Mueller’s report could bolster the notion that Mr. Trump’s fawning over Mr. Putin was motivated, at least in part, by gratitude for Russia’s intervention and a desire to encourage it. Mr. Trump’s desire to score a lucrative Trump Tower Moscow deal may have also been part of his motivation to avoid offending the Kremlin.

The Trump Tower Moscow talks ended before the election, but months later than the Trump camp initially claimed. This doesn’t mean that Trump abandoned the idea. Trump himself suggested as much. “There would be nothing wrong if I did do it,” Trump said in November of last year. “I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?”

There’s nothing necessarily criminal about that. But, it does suggest a motivation for Trump’s reluctance to say or do anything that might offend Moscow during the campaign.

The Obstruction of Justice Question

Then there is the question of the extent to which Mr. Trump used the power of his office to thwart scrutiny of his dealings with Russia. Among other things, Mr. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, at least in part, out of frustration with the Russia probe. Mr. Mueller declined to take a position on whether these actions broke the law. Mr. Barr, however, concluded that they didn’t.

“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mr. Barr quoted the Special Counsel’s report as saying. Mr. Barr said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not think that the evidence supported a charge of obstruction of justice. “The evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” Mr. Barr wrote.

Mr. Trump’s frustration with Mr. Comey appears more justified in the absence of an underlying crime. Still, there’s room for reasonable debate about whether Mr. Trump’s actions were appropriate. Is a President’s use of the powers of his office to throw sand into the gears of an investigation ok if it is merely motivated by a desire to avoid political embarrassment rather than legal consequences? The answer to that question will break along partisan lines. But, Mr. Mueller’s report may add more details that bolster the case of Mr. Trump’s opponents.

Still, at the end of the day, Mr. Trump’s claims that there was no collusion with Russia look to be vindicated. This simple fact may well outshine any troubling new information the Mueller report reveals. Mr. Trump’s opponents, and their lofty expectations of a grand conspiracy between Mr. Trump and the Kremlin, set a bar that the Mueller report will probably not clear.

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