President Trump may not have committed a prosecutable crime. But he has not been exonerated.
The release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 election today demonstrates one thing: There is often a difference between what is legal and illegal, and what is right and wrong. On the question of whether his campaign colluded with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election, Trump may have stayed on the right side of the former line — perhaps just barely — but it's clear that he and his campaign strolled brazenly across the latter.
The report establishes this: The Russians interfered in the election to help get Trump elected. The Trump campaign was happy to receive the benefits of that interference. But because nobody in the Trump campaign personally helped hack Hillary Clinton's emails, they have been absolved of legal responsibility.
Mueller summarizes: "Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign itself expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."
But Trump wasn't passive: Everybody should remember his public plea to Russia in July 2016 to release Hillary Clinton's emails. Later, he would claim he was joking. He wasn't.
According to Mueller: "After candidate Trump stated on July 27, 2016, that he hoped Russia would 'find the 30,000 emails that are missing,' Trump asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails. Michael Flynn — who would later serve as National Security Advisor in the Trump administration — recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails."
In other words: The Trump White House is just a high-level version of a sleazy pawn shop where the owner traffics in stolen goods. Everybody knows the owner is profiting from crime — including the owner — but as long as as he keeps his fingerprints off the precise moment the goods are stolen, he's allowed to keep making his living off the fruits of other people's wrongdoing.
It may not be technically illegal. But it sure isn't right.
There will be an effort by Trump and his defenders to claim that all is fair in love, war and elections — that there's no ethical bar to collaborating with criminals and rival countries as long as you let them do the dirty work. It's a claim that requires Americans to abandon any sense of right or wrong, to set the standard for presidential behavior as "whatever he can semi-plausibly get away with." And remember: When Albert Gore's campaign received purloined information from the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, it turned that material over to the FBI. That's not just a nice precedent — it should be the expectation. Trump would have you believe otherwise.
The question of Russian email hacking and the Trump campaign's eagerness to benefit from that hacking is just one element of the 400-page Mueller report. There's plenty else damning in there as well — evidence that officials deleted and hid their communications rather than allow Mueller access; reports that the president tried to have Mueller fired, and lied about doing so; and plenty of reasons to believe that Trump did, in fact, try to obstruct justice. The report deserves to be read in full; it's likely we'll be digesting it for days and weeks to come.
Which leaves a remaining question: Why isn't the president on trial? To put it in terms tough-on-crime Republicans would surely recognize: He got off on a technicality.
"If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state," Mueller wrote. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
The good news: There can still be accountability.
As The New Republic's Jeet Heer points out, impeachment is still an option for Congress:
1. Let's unpack this a little more. Let's think about the Mueller Report as a de facto impeachment referral. Mueller made his decision based on (arguable) premise a president can't be indicted but can be impeached. https://t.co/hydZFcosdB
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) April 18, 2019
2. @emptywheel is at the same place I am: the Mueller report can be read as an impeachment referral. Going further: it actually, in laying out the damaging facts, is a road map to impeachment. The question is: does congress use this road map.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) April 18, 2019
Which means the ball is in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's court now.
Undoubtedly, many Americans are ready to end this scandal and put it behind us. But a reasonable reading of the Mueller report suggests that President Trump has, at best, acquiesced to the corruption of the American electoral process — then sandbagged the officials charged with getting at the truth. If that's not a high crimes or misdemeanors, then nothing is. The release of the Mueller report does not exonerate the president — but it demonstrates, again, something we already knew: He's utterly unfit for office. It's time for our leaders to act on that knowledge.