Ignore the media's Trump-Russia recriminations. Look at the big picture instead.

It appears Trump did not directly conspire with Russia. That doesn't mean he's free of sin.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | kolotuschenko/iStock, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons)

The Mueller report summary written by Attorney General Barr was delivered to Congress over the weekend. It quotes the report as follows: "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." This has both the Republican right and the Russiagate-skeptic left taking victory laps. "Total EXONERATION," Trump wrote on Twitter. "It's official: Russiagate is this generation's WMD," wrote Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi.

The discourse around this report has revolved far too much around who gets to gloat about making correct predictions, and whether the media exaggerated this or that, which risks letting the content of the report get lost in the noise. Better by far to focus on the actual facts at hand, which are not at all favorable for Trump.

For my part, I must admit I suspected Mueller would find more direct evidence of some kind of direct coordination between Trump and Russia — if for no other reason than he acted like the guiltiest man alive. If Barr's summary is fair, then I was wrong about that aspect of the story.

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However, it is far too much to say even this summary exonerates Trump. For one thing, contrary to many blaring news headlines, the quoted sentence of the report does not say there was no evidence of coordination, but that it "did not establish" it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the lawyer saying goes.

Also, it does say that Russia conducted a two-front effort to help Trump win the election, through social media propaganda and hacking the emails of various Democratic operations — thus the indictments of dozens of Russian nationals and several Russian companies. And even if Trump did not meet Mueller's notions of coordination or collusion — defined as "agreement—tacit or express" to participate in the above propaganda or hacking efforts — the plain fact is that Trump endorsed the Russian hacking effort on national TV. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens," he said in July 2016.

Most important of all is the issue of obstruction of justice, which is hard to believe Barr didn't find evidence of.

Per the memo, Mueller did not decide one way or another whether Trump committed this crime, instead laying out arguments on both sides and allowing Barr to decide. As Marcy Wheeler points out, in a letter to then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein trying to inoculate Trump against being interrogated by Mueller's team, Barr wrote that "if a president knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction." He reaffirmed this perspective in his confirmation hearings when asked by Amy Klobuchar.

Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that Trump indirectly pushed him to commit perjury about the Trump Tower Moscow project (for which Cohen is going to prison), and that his testimony was edited by another Trump lawyer, Jay Sekulow. CNN and the New York Times have reported that Trump lawyers dangled pardons before Cohen, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort, obviously in an effort to get them to clam up.

Notably, none of the crimes Cohen, Flynn, and Manafort were convicted of were directly related to Russian election interference — but Trump's alleged acts would still constitute obstruction according to the stated views of Attorney General Barr.

Finally, the whole reason there was a special counsel investigation in the first place is because Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey. Trump later told Lester Holt he did it in part for this reason: "And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said 'you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story[.]'" You could hardly ask for a clearer case of obstruction than firing the head of a law enforcement agency because the president doesn't like an investigation into himself.

Instead of following through with his previous promises, Barr exonerates Trump through a ludicrously narrow focus. Because "the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference," the case can't be made, he argues. As Wheeler writes, "In giving Trump the all-clear on obstruction charges, Barr appears not to have considered whether Trump obstructed the actual crime in question." In other words, the fix was in (and thus the whole report should be released immediately, so the American people can see what Mueller found for themselves).

And let's remember who we're talking about here. Barr is not Thomas More. He's a replacement for Jeff Sessions — the guy Trump pushed out in part because he recused himself from the Russia investigation. Barr almost certainly got the job due to the above memo, which despite its initial stipulations concludes it is more-or-less impossible for the president to obstruct justice.

The Trump administration's approach here — carried out in concert with Attorney General Barr — is pretty clearly to try to muddy the waters around the Mueller findings to make it appear as though Trump is completely free of sin. In reality, just what is publicly known about the Mueller investigation is incredibly damning. A foreign government interfered with a U.S. election, the Republican candidate embraced it, and the rest of the party leadership connived to prevent bipartisan action to stop it. Seven Trump or Republican associates, including Trump's campaign manager, national security adviser, and personal lawyer, have been convicted of various felonies in the biggest white-collar crime investigation in years, and another is on trial.

Breathless hype from cable news personalities and various conspiracy nuts no doubt contributed to the air of liberal disappointment from the denouement of the Mueller saga. But it would be unwise indeed to let resentment of Louise Mensch and Eric Garland push others into helping Trump whitewash his crooked administration.

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