What the Mueller memo says — and doesn't say
One thing has been very predictable about American politics over the last two years: When President Trump wakes up and misplaces his mind on Twitter like some street-corner LaRouchie, it's often because something very, very bad for him is about to be made public. So when Trump started in with his drunk-getting-ejected-from-a-bar routine on Twitter Friday morning, it was a surefire sign that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation was about to ruin the president's evening.
Trump fired off seven caterwauling tweets about the probe, claiming absurdly that Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey were "best friends," and deploying his usual mix of bluster ("We will be doing a major Counter Report to the Mueller Report") and look-over-thereism ("Will the corruption within the DNC and Clinton Campaign be exposed?"). It's a sign of how inured we have become to the Trump administration that the president having a public emotional meltdown before lunch is just business as usual in D.C. Totally normal.
It was the sort of off-kilter tirade you might expect the day the actual Mueller report is released. But that's not what happened. The events for which everyone had been waiting breathlessly, or in the president's case, noisily, all day, turned out not to contain the anticipated bombshells. The sentencing memo released by federal prosecutors in the case of Trump's former lawyer and cheeseburger man Michael Cohen recommended a "lengthy prison term" and detailed anew his tax evasion and campaign finance violations, noting again that he "acted in coordination with Individual-1" (Trump) to pay off women who allegedly had affairs with Trump. Just because this information has long been known does not obscure the fact that the president of the United States has now been accused of a serious federal crime designed, through deception, to affect the outcome of a presidential election. That's impeachment article one right there. It doesn't feel explosive only because we've become numb to this president's bottomless perfidy.
But it was Mueller's separate memo that hinted even more strongly that the Trump Organization's Moscow tower operation that Cohen falsely told Congress had been spiked in January 2016 might be at the center of the whole scandal, arguing that Cohen's "false statements obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government." Clearly, Mueller's team thinks there was, at minimum, a quid pro quo arrangement between Trump and the Russian oligarchs and apparatchiks he needed to secure the deal.
However, what was revealed explicitly in the memo itself, such as a November 2015 overture by a "Russian national" offering "political synergy," was not obviously damning. Cohen never responded to that particular entreaty, although the document suggested he was already working with someone else. But that incident was preceded by the phrase "For example," leaving open the distinct possibility that more explosive revelations are being strategically withheld. The most potentially damaging details are mentioned shortly thereafter. The memo appreciatively notes that Cohen gave the Special Counsel's Office "useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation" and "useful and relevant information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period." These two lines suggest that there is much more to come from Cohen about both Russian election interference as well as President Trump's possible obstruction of justice. At minimum, the memo strongly suggests that Russian agents successfully penetrated the Trump campaign.
Early in the evening, the president (or someone writing for the president) posted a brief and bizarre statement that read in full, "Totally clears the president. Thank you!" The Cohen sentencing memo very much did not clear the president — sorry, Individual-1 — and in fact hinted that Cohen had provided incriminating information to prosecutors. But we probably won't know exactly what Cohen has on the president until Mueller connects the dots with his final report, or when this information leads to more indictments. There are, after all, dozens of sealed indictments on the docket in D.C., which legal experts believe are likely part of the Mueller probe. While Friday might not have been the Mueller massacre everyone seemed to be expecting in the morning, it could also been seen as part of the inquiry's methodical effort to close every escape hatch for the president and his associates.
At the end of the day, we might be able to boil the Russia scandal down to this: To advance his family's business interests, a presidential candidate and his variously compromised underlings collaborated with a hostile foreign power to interfere with a national election, in exchange for sanctions relief and the promise of a free hand in Ukraine. Like a competent regression analysis, this single sentence explains most of the variation in behavior of every knucklehead and B-movie villain in Trump's orbit, from Roger Stone and Paul Manafort to Michael Flynn, the president himself, and his useless adult children. In the end the lot of them will have achieved nothing other than an ephemeral boost in the fortunes of a gasping, dying, white Republican minority. Trump will leave office, whether by impeachment or at the hands of the voters, with what remains of his global racketeering and money laundering business in tatters and the Republican Party reeling from its decision trade the future of conservatism to a loathsome, lifelong con man in obvious cognitive decline.
In the meantime, what has been obvious for months remains true: Eventually we will know everything that Mueller and his team know. The truth will out. It may be slow, agonizing, and difficult to piece together. But whatever it is, our quavering, half-crazed president will be forced to reckon with it. And that might be his, and our, most dangerous moment yet.