Mueller report: The winners and losers

The full report from special counsel Robert Mueller was finally published — in modestly redacted form — on Thursday.

The hype was immense, but who were the winners and losers?


Special counsel Robert Mueller

The report was the first time Mueller’s own voice was heard loud and clear, rather than being filtered by Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee.

{mosads}The results were impressive. Across more than 400 pages, the seriousness and diligence of Mueller’s efforts was clearly apparent. So too was the care with which Mueller parsed the legal issues he was investigating, especially pertaining to obstruction of justice.

Mueller had been hailed as a good choice by all sides when he was appointed back in May 2017. 

The findings of his report might not have pleased partisans on either side. But he navigated an unprecedented minefield, neither overreaching nor being timorous toward President Trump and his allies.

Mueller’s reticence during the 22-month probe ultimately played to his advantage, too. It neutralized any suggestion that he was seduced by the limelight — a criticism often leveled against another central figure in the drama, former FBI Director James Comey.

Mueller’s efforts involved the issuing of more than 2,800 subpoenas, the interviewing of about 500 witnesses and the execution of almost 500 search warrants.

Congressional panels and prosecutors elsewhere will move forward, but Mueller’s probe is likely to remain definitive.

President Trump

Trump’s victory here comes with several asterisks. But he has one huge and overarching fact on his side: Mueller did not establish that the president or anyone associated with his campaign coordinated with Russia.

This is, and always was, the central issue. 

Mueller’s finding is, in its essence, an endorsement of Trump’s endlessly repeated “no collusion” mantra. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called Thursday “the best day since he got elected” — and while there was self-serving hyperbole in that statement, the White House feels genuine relief at Mueller’s findings.

There were plenty of unflattering details for Trump, however, particularly relating to issues of potential obstruction.

The portrait that emerges is a president hellbent on pushing back on the investigation. He may have been saved from a more adverse finding only because so many aides and allies ignored his instructions. 

Arch-loyalists such as Corey Lewandowski, as well as erstwhile White House counsel Donald McGahn, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, all rejected or obfuscated Trump’s requests, according to Mueller.

In addition, some of the most vivid details in the report raise new questions. 

Trump is reported to have reacted to the appointment of the special counsel in the first place by lamenting, “I’m f—ed.”

Critics will say that does not sound like the reaction of an innocent man — though the report suggests Trump may have been driven by fear that a long probe would undermine his ability to govern.

Still, the big picture remains: No collusion. Trump will be more than satisfied with that outcome, given the gravity of the threat Mueller posed.

Congressional Republicans

Republicans on Capitol Hill will be breathing just as big a sigh of relief as the president.

A good day for Trump is a good day for his party.

Critically, Republicans have a much simpler story to tell than Democrats. They can lean hard into the “no collusion” finding, which in turn makes it easier to argue that any Democratic-led probes are partisan and tenuous. 

Democrats, by contrast, have to explain that Mueller himself avoided any traditional “yes or no” answer on the question of obstruction; that they consider Barr to be wrong when he decided there is no case to answer on obstruction; and that there is enough evidence of Trump’s malfeasance to justify further congressional  investigations, even as some in their party would prefer to move onto a different footing as the 2020 election looms.

Gravely adverse findings from Mueller would also have left GOP lawmakers — especially those representing competitive districts — on the horns of a dilemma if Democrats pressed impeachment proceedings.

Instead, Republicans are off the hook, and it is Democrats who must confront a difficult decision on what, if anything, to do about impeachment.

Former White House counsel Donald McGahn

The Mueller report painted an unflattering picture of many of the president’s associates. McGahn, who served as White House counsel until last October, was an exception.

The most dramatic instances relate to Trump’s desire to be rid of the special counsel. Mueller confirmed media reports that Trump had called McGahn in June 2017, seeking to have him take action to remove Mueller.

McGahn refused, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” the report says.

The following year, as the media reported on that episode, Trump sought to have McGahn deny what had happened. The counsel again declined to do so. 

“McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report states.

There aren’t many people in Trump’s orbit who emerge from the report with their moral stature enhanced. McGahn is one of them.


Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Pelosi is one of the most savvy politicians in Washington but now she faces another test of her leadership skills.

The Speaker has to keep her conference together, even as progressives push for an impeachment drive while more senior figures are unenthusiastic about that idea.

Pelosi, who is on a congressional trip to Europe, has said little on the impeachment question since the report came out — though she flagged her own misgivings in a Washington Post interview last month.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), a longtime proponent of impeaching Trump, said at a Thursday news conference that Mueller has “given us ample evidence for us to move forward with impeachment.”

Green added: “If we don’t step up and do our job, if we in engage in some sort of analysis and debate and refuse to say the word ‘impeachment’, we will engage in what Dr. [Martin Luther] King calls the paralysis of analysis.”

Progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted on Thursday afternoon that she, too, would support an impeachment effort.

But those views are starkly at odds with comments from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on CNN. 

“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Hoyer told CNN’s Dana Bash. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgement.”

Pelosi will have to navigate some tricky, turbulent currents in the weeks ahead.


Attorney General William Barr

Barr’s decision to give a news conference shortly before the report was released was mystifying — and it did his reputation real damage.

The four-page document Barr released last month, outlining Mueller’s key findings, was defensible, especially given the intense public fascination with the matter. 

But his performance on Thursday drew criticism from quarters beyond traditional Trump critics.

Chris Wallace of Fox News said that Barr “seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the attorney general,” for example.

Barr’s emphasis on Trump’s emotions was particularly confounding. At one point, he seemed to suggest that the president’s “sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency” should be weighed against any suggestion that the president could have obstructed justice.

The attorney general came across as a Trump puppet on Thursday. His performance might have pleased an audience of one in the White House, but it will taint the rest of Barr’s tenure at the Justice Department.

Cable news pundits

Mueller’s in-depth and nuanced report cast an unflattering light on cable news pundits from both sides of the spectrum. 

Some of the most sweeping predictions of Trump’s doom from the left were made to look sensationalist and hollow. And the right-wing claim that Mueller’s probe was a ginned-up witch hunt can’t be taken seriously by any fair-minded person who read his findings.

The report card for the media writ large has its positive points. The report confirmed the accuracy of a number of major newspaper stories that the White House had vigorously disputed at the time. 

Some of Trump’s most fervent defenders, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were also cast in an unflattering light. By Mueller’s account, Sanders admitted that her contention that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey as the bureau’s director was “not founded on anything.”

Still, Mueller’s analysis — sober, fair and detailed — stood in stark contrast to cable news coverage that is all too often antithetical to those values.

Tags Al Green Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Corey Lewandowski Donald McGahn Donald Trump FBI James Comey Justice Department Kellyanne Conway Mueller report Nancy Pelosi Robert Mueller Steny Hoyer William Barr
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