The Special Counsel and Trump’s Saga Of Self-Inflicted Wounds

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the description of events in the Trump White House. While Trump is continuing to attack Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump is blaming possible “traitors” and others for their roles in the investigation. The one person who he is not blaming is himself despite the fact that the Mueller report is a 400-page tale of self-inflicted wounds.

Here is the column:

Not since the movie “Inception” has there been such disagreement over what people have just watched together. Call it “Perception.” At roughly 400 pages long, the report of special counsel Robert Mueller was eagerly devoured by millions after its release. That common interest, however, masked the fact that very few minds will be changed by its content.

The report had something for everyone to reaffirm divergent views of Donald Trump, from presumed felon to putative victim. However, what is fascinating is the sharp disconnect that emerges between his rhetoric and his conduct. Trump had spent the last two years regularly repeating a maddening mantra: witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt. His tweets and comments represented much of what the special counsel investigated.

Trump came close to achieving the impossible feat of obstructing the investigation into a crime that did not, in fact, occur. In the end, Mueller punted the issue by saying that whether these comments constitute a crime must turn on intent, which could not be ascertained, particularly given the refusal by Trump to be interviewed by the special counsel staff. It is notable that the special counsel repeatedly described the motivation in noncriminal terms. Trump firing Comey was clearly in response to his frustration with Comey refusing to state publicly what he was saying privately, which is that Trump was not a target. Indeed, Mueller found that Trump agreed that the Russian interference with the investigation, including any cooperating individuals, had to be fully investigated.

On some level, the indeterminacy of the conclusion on obstruction was the penalty for Trump refusing to answer questions. However, the report establishes that there really was no serious basis for a criminal charge of obstruction. Indeed, there is something peevish in not reaching an obvious conclusion. The report has precious little on obstruction that was not already known. The greatest damage that Trump did to himself was done in full view. But once his rhetoric is stripped away, his conduct was not criminal, though it was at some point contemptible.

There seems little question that Trump wanted the investigation to end and wanted to fire key players in the investigation, according to the report. But he did not fire anyone involved in the investigation. He did not destroy any evidence. He did not end the investigation prematurely. He took no actual obstructive acts. To charge him would have amounted to a virtual thought crime. The investigation did find “substantial evidence” that Trump wanted to limit the investigation by some of his actions. However, it also found that he did not do so. Trump had obstructive desires and even wanted to obstruct, but he did not actually obstruct.

What emerges from more than 400 pages and 10 investigative “episodes” is a Trump who was protected from himself by key advisers. It began with the single greatest blunder in modern presidential history, which is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. There were ample reasons to fire Comey, who was denounced by career prosecutors and both Democratic and Republican leaders for his violation of core prosecutorial policies.

Trump could have fired Comey at the start of his administration or at the end of the Russia investigation. He just could not do it in the middle of the investigation. That is what the White House staffers uniformly told him, with one exception, which was Jared Kushner. That was enough. Trump fired Comey and set his administration on fire. An investigation that was winding down metastasized into a spiraling inquiry with global reach.

After the Comey debacle, staffers quickly recognized that Trump was counterpunching himself into serious criminal jeopardy. That led to the most significant moment described in the report. Trump decided to take a step that would have made the moronic firing of Comey look brilliant in comparison. He ordered the firing of Mueller. At that point, staffers including White House counsel Don McGahn turned themselves into a virtual human shield to protect Trump from himself. McGahn refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign. It was an extraordinary moment. In refusing repeated orders of a sitting president, McGahn actually said that he was coming to the White House to pack his things. Instead, the president kept McGahn on and Mueller was never fired.

Had Trump gotten his wish, he well could have tripped the wire for obstruction or impeachment. He came that close. However, he did not cross the line. That is why this movie is so confusing to so many. The “Death Star” did not explode. The “Titanic” did not sink. The president did not obstruct justice. Despite his best efforts, Trump stayed just north of the criminal code. Of course, avoiding the indictable or the impeachable does not mean that some conduct was not contemptible as president.

Trump is worthy of condemnation for his conduct in seeking to end the investigation. It is clear from the report that Trump was, to some degree, saved from himself by staffers. It is an extraordinary moment for staffers to refuse a direct order from the president. Trump also instantly reminded voters how much of this was inflicted upon himself by tweeting a “Game of Thrones” image with the words “game over.” The problem is that the special counsel report makes him look a lot like Mad King Targaryen.

However, there is one aspect here that is commendable and worthy of praise. Ultimately, Trump not only ordered senior staff to cooperate with Mueller, but he did not withhold evidence. Most important, he waived executive privilege over the entirety of the report in an unprecedented degree of transparency. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Donald Trump is neither a felon nor is he blameless. Like much else in our politics, the rest is likely to be more rage than reason, as people reach their own conclusions.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

71 thoughts on “The Special Counsel and Trump’s Saga Of Self-Inflicted Wounds”

  1. “Indeed, there is something peevish in [Mueller] not reaching an obvious conclusion [that Trump was innocent of obstruction].” And, “[Comey refused] to say publicly what he was saying privately, that Trump was not a target.” Herein lies the key to this supposedly enigmatic human: He is a man reacting to the pervasive irrational hatred and insubordination. And, the fact that his ATTORNEYS “saved” him from making indictable errors is not a reason to condemn him: Most people need legal advice to stay out of trouble when they are being attacked. But very few have the presence of mind and self-discipline to listen to them.

    1. Ind. Bob,
      As I’ve previously mentioned, the investigation into L4B and her coven is ongoing.
      So the investigators try to keep the investigation as secret as possible….no leaks to the press, etc.
      There’ll be a report of the investigation which may, or may not, draw conclusions about the targets of the investigation.
      The lead investigator, mute throughout this process, may or may not answer lingering questions once the 🐈 releases his tongue.

      1. Excerpted from Page 186 the Mueller report:

        There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a “thing of value” within the meaning of these provisions, but the Office determined that the government would not be likely to obtain and sustain a conviction for two other reasons: First, the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted “willfully,” with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct; and, second, the government would likely encounter difficulty in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of the promised information exceeded the threshold for a criminal violation, see 52 U.S.C. 30109(d)(1)(A)(i).

        [repeated for emphasis] the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted “willfully,”

        1. From the bottom of Page 185 of the Mueller report:

          The Office considered whether this evidence would establish a conspiracy to violate the foreign contributions ban, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 371; the solicitation of an illegal foreign-source contribution; or the acceptance or receipt of an express or implied promise to make a foreign-source contribution . . . [lost in page break]

  2. We’ve probably had about 200 JT columns here dealing with various aspects of the Trump/F B I/ Russia/ OSC topics.
    That’s just a rough estimate.
    And again, as a rough estimate, several thousand comments related to those issues.
    After 2 1/2 years of this bull****, there was probably some false hope that there’d be some definitive conclusion to this farce.
    Now, treat yourselves to somewhere between a year and a half to 5 1/2 years of hyper-spin from all angles.
    L4B has the Championship Ring in this category, given her inside knowledge all the way along with her “insight’ into “what Mueller knows, what Trump knows, what Trump knows that Mueller knows, when members of Trump family will be indicted, etc.
    There’s really no need to waste any more time following the latest news or future developments on these issues, given the brilliant analysis and forecasts🤭😉 of one of our premier propandists and seers that grace these comment threads.
    Because over the next year and a half to five and a half years, all you’ll ever need to know will be presented here by this sites top two propagantists.

    1. Excerpted from Page 180 of the Mueller report:

      In particular, the Office has evaluated whether the conduct of the individuals considered for prosecution constituted a
      federal offense and whether admissible evidence would probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction for such an offense. Justice Manual 9-27.220 (2018). Where the answer to those questions was yes, the Office further considered whether the prosecution would serve a substantial federal interest, the individuals were subject to effective prosecution in another jurisdiction, and there existed an adequate non-criminal alternative to prosecution.

      As explained below, those considerations led the Office to seek charges against two sets of Russian nationals for their roles in perpetrating the active-measures social media campaign and computer-intrusion operations. [Harm to Ongomg Matter

      redacted
      redacted
      redacted
      redacted]

      . . . similarly determined that the contacts between Campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals either did not involve the commission of a federal crime or, in the case of campaign-finance offenses, that our evidence was not sufficient to obtain and sustain a criminal conviction. At the
      same time, the Office concluded that the Principles of Federal Prosecution supported charging certain individuals connected to the Campaign with making false statements or otherwise obstructing this investigation or parallel congressional investigations.

      1. “the Office has evaluated whether the conduct of the individuals considered for prosecution constituted a
        federal offense”

        After the evaluations and everything else Trump was found innocent.

        “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. Persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation?”

        “The office did not identify evidence in these interactions of coordination between the Campaign and the Russian government.”

        “…the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign consider or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

        Diane copies and pastes little nothings. I wonder if she bothers reading what she posts?

  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-election-zelenskiy-newsmaker/landslide-election-victory-thrusts-ukrainian-comedian-into-limelight-idUSKCN1RX0PB

    Off topic– but the Ukraine has come up in a number of past discussions.
    At least on this case, we didn’t have a senior U.S. State Dept. official over there taking sides with a particular faction.
    There’s an old joke that “the situation in England is serious but not hopeless; the situation in Italy is hopeless but not serious”.
    From what I’ve seen of the developments in the Ukraine, it may be both serious and hopeless.

  4. And everyone one of you trump suckers would be screaming for the democratic president’s head had they pulled any of this crap.

    1. If by Trump suckers you mean sycophants, then perhaps. However most of us here support the rule of law and the presumption of innocence. We don’t support Lawfare, regardless of who the victim is.

      So no, your claim is without merit here. Try again.

      1. Excerpted from Page 2 of the Mueller report:

        The report describes actions and events that the Special Counsel’s Office found to be supported by the evidence collected in our investigation. In some instances, the report points out the absence of evidence or conflicts in the evidence about a particular fact or event. In other instances, when substantial, credible evidence enabled the Office to reach a conclusion with confidence, the report states that the investigation established that certain actions or events occurred. A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.

        [repeated for emphasis] A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.

        In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of “collusion.” In so doing, the Office recognized that the word “collud[e]” was used in communications with the Acting
        Attorney General confirming certain aspects of the investigation’s scope and that the term has frequently been invoked in public reporting about the investigation. But collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law. For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.

        In connection with that analysis, we addressed the factual question whether members of the Trump Campaign coordinated–the term that appears in the appointment order–with Russian election interference activities. Like collusion, “coordination” does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement–tacit or express–between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests. We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

        [repeated for emphasis] We understood coordination to require an agreement–tacit or express–between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.

          1. The Washington Post and a few other newspapers have pending FOIA requests for the redacted portions of the transcripts from Paul Manafort’s Breach Hearing. [i.e. the breach of Manafort’s cooperation agreement.] Mueller’s Office estimated that those FOIA requests could be processed shortly after they had finished their work on The Mueller Report. I’m guessing that that means sometime in May–meaning this coming month.

            I mention that because the redacted portion of Manafort’s Breach Hearing transcripts could shed a fair bit of light on Mueller’s declination decisions–especially the parts where Mueller says that there was insufficient evidence to establish “willfulness” and the part where Mueller suggests that there might be inadmissible evidence to show “willfulness.” IOW, because Manafort rendered himself useless as a cooperating witness, therefore the evidence that would show “willfulness” might be inadmissible in a court of law had Mueller indicted Donald Trump Jr. But that same evidence might be admissible in the court of public opinion once the FOIA request is granted. And, of course, there’s an excellent chance that Congressmen Cummings, Nadler and Schiff might be avid readers of The Washington Post. Or else their staffers are. Ha-Ha!

            1. Oops. Correction: The FOIA requests will not be granted until October 15th of 2019 at the earliest.

              I forgot about the “mystery” investigation that Mueller referred to another Office involving [Mr. Five-Character Name] and [Mr. Seven-Character Name]. Oily Crepe! There’s way far too much to remember. Anyway, some observers have speculated that the mystery investigation involves George Nader and Jared Kushner’s efforts to avail themselves of campaign assistance from the PsyGroup operated by Joel Zamel. Don’t ask me. I’m not supposed to know. It’s supposed to be a “secret.”

        1. “In connection with that analysis, we addressed the factual question whether members of the Trump Campaign coordinated…” Meaningless BS.

          Read on Diane.

          “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. Persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation?”

          “The office did not identify evidence in these interactions of coordination between the Campaign and the Russian government.”

          “…the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign consider or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

          1. Allan,
            This is the quintessential black hole statement that has left these idiots thinking, so you say there’s a chance!?

            A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.

            The worst-case scenario is that evidence of facts was found, but the evidence was inadmissible. It doesn’t describe what that evidence was or what facts that evidence proved. But one thing is certain, it was determined by Mueller and his team that nothing the evidence proved was more significant than exposing the reason it was inadmissible. Think sources and methods more criminal than the evidence it exposed.

            Best-case scenario is that statement is gobbledygook, (read: lawfare red-meat) and the usual suspects are on it.

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