If you’ve watched cable news or read newspapers for the last two years, you know most of what’s in the Mueller report.
That was perhaps the biggest surprise in poring over it. Even the president’s lawyers were surprised by that.
On issue after issue, the special counsel’s report describes what we already know — about President Trump and Michael Cohen, Trump and Paul Manafort, Trump and Michael Flynn — and ultimately says no collusion with Russia and only inconclusive evidence of possible obstruction of justice.
To be sure, there’s a text message here or a voice mail there that paints a fuller picture. But for the most part, the report consists of lengthy legal arguments as to why the president could have obstructed justice, might arguably have obstructed justice — only to say that Mueller’s office makes no recommendation.
That means, in my view, there’s no one anecdote or admission that political and media critics can seize upon to change the overarching narrative, that Mueller is bringing no further charges.
In fact, the best single scene is when Jeff Sessions told Trump that a special counsel had been appointed, the president replied: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f—ed.” Then he demanded to know how Sessions could let this happen.
But of course, he railed against Sessions and his recusal so many times, until the AG was forced out, that we sort of knew that (minus the F-bomb).
All this is great fodder for the press, and for legal scholars, and for historians. But there’s very little that will change people’s minds as to whether Donald Trump engaged in misconduct.
— When Trump called Paul Manafort, during jury deliberations, a “very good person” and said “it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort,” the comments could “engender sympathy for Manafort among jurors” if they learned of the remarks. But there are “alternative explanations,” such as that he “genuinely felt sorry for Manafort” or was trying to influence public opinion, not the jury.
— “There is evidence” that the president knew Michael Cohen had testified falsely before Congress about continuing efforts during the campaign to win approval for a Trump Tower in Moscow. But the available evidence “does not establish that the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”
It’s like a legal seminar, as the report rehashes the mostly known facts, floats the most damaging interpretations, offers the counter-argument and concludes there is insufficient evidence.
Less flattering for Trump:
— His firing of Jim Comey, request to his White House counsel to have Bob Mueller fired, and direction to Corey Lewandowski to ask Sessions to limit the scope of Mueller’s probe all could be viewed as trying to undercut the investigation. But these efforts were largely unsuccessful because the people around Trump “declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
— When a reporter said the vast majority of FBI agents supported the just-fired Comey, Sarah Sanders said: “we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI who say very different things.” She told Mueller’s office this was a “slip of the tongue” that occurred “‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything.”
— Trump told Mueller in written answers that he had no advance knowledge of the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer. In 2017, Hope Hicks and another aide — after discussions with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — said the emails involved would inevitably leak and should be released. Hicks was shocked by the emails and thought they looked “really bad.” Jared, Ivanka and Hope urged the president to release the emails — Hicks said they could do it as part of an interview with “softball questions” — but he disagreed that they would leak.
When The New York Times got onto the story, the president dictated that they should just say the meeting was about Russian adoptions. Don Jr. objected, asking that the word “primarily” be added because there was briefly a discussion about Hillary Clinton: “If I don’t have it in there it appears as though I’m lying later when they inevitably leak something.” The Times soon obtained the emails, leading to a wave of bad press.
But all this is pretty down in the weeds. And that’s in part because so much of what the president said and did in battling Mueller played out in public.
What is muting the report’s impact, in my view, is that expectations were so sky-high. The media, having invested so much capital in this probe for two years, only to be let down by the lack of criminal charges, were betting that the actual report would be explosive. And yet it was more popgun than big-time bomb.