Mueller report: when did the bar on presidential conduct sink so low?

There's a strong chance Donald Trump will win in 2020 but given what is now incontrovertible, he certainly shouldn't

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 16, 2018, US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands ahead a meeting in Helsinki. A long-awaited US probe on Russian election meddling has divided Washington but on one point virtually all US policymakers are clear -- there will be no reconciliation with Moscow. The 400-page document by Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out Russia's persistent efforts to tilt the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, although it did not find that his campaign was colluding with Russia.  / AFP / Brendan Smialowski
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The redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russian interference in the 2016 US election has resolved nothing. Both sides in a deeply divided country have found vindication in its pages. And neither will budge an inch.

US President Donald Trump hotly denies "collusion" with Russia but that is not a legal term, and therefore was not a subject of Mr Mueller's investigations. Instead, Mr Mueller investigated whether the Trump campaign illegally conspired with Russians, or the president subsequently obstructed justice, or both.

He documented an extraordinary pattern of interactions between Trump campaign operatives and a dizzying array of Russians, while Moscow meddled and Wikileaks published Hillary Clinton campaign emails, apparently illegally hacked by Russia, all to help elect Mr Trump.

Mr Trump publicly urged both Russia and WikiLeaks to hack and publicise such documents, going so far as to say during a press conference in July 2016: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press." Within five hours, Russian intelligence launched their first attack on Mrs Clinton's accounts.

Although Wikileaks dealt directly with both the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, Mr Mueller could not complete the triangle by substantiating an illegal Trump-Russia conspiracy.

The president and his supporters claim this adds up to "no collusion" and “total exoneration", although they seem more enraged, and concerned, than ever.

Nonetheless, the report lays bare how Mr Trump repeatedly lied, and ordered officials to lie, to mislead investigators and tried to derail probes with other actions, such as firing FBI director James Comey.

The White House narrative has become bewilderingly self-contradictory.

Mr Trump continues to denounce the investigation as a "witch hunt", fuming that the “crazy Mueller report” was “written by 18 angry Democrat Trump-haters” while simultaneously citing it as a vindication.

That makes no sense but his supporters won’t notice or care.

If there was no unlawful collaboration, it wasn’t for lack of trying by campaign officials such as Donald Trump Junior. He welcomed an apparent offer of dirt on Mrs Clinton from Russian operatives by gushing: "I love it" and arranging a meeting.

The Mueller report doesn't explain why there were so many Trump-Russian contacts, why the president and his associates persistently lied about them, or why he takes a strangely deferential attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Those perturbing questions remain unanswered.

Attorney general William Barr exonerated Mr Trump in part because of his controversial belief that US presidents cannot commit obstruction while exercising their constitutionally mandated functions, such as firing officials or directing investigations. He thinks only extra-constitutional malfeasance such as suborning perjury or ordering destruction of evidence could amount to obstruction.

In a four-page summary released on March 24, Mr Barr misrepresented the report as exculpatory. He distorted its findings and quoted passages out of context, sometimes even inverting their original meanings.

The Mueller report has served a purpose: it provides a road map for an obstruction indictment

That created a widespread false perception of exonerating the president, especially among Trump supporters, in spite of the actual findings of the report, which did no such thing.

Because the justice department holds that a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted but only impeached by Congress, the Mueller probe deliberately avoided “an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the president committed crimes”.

Mr Mueller said he did not make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether there was obstruction because of the "applicable legal standards"; that is to say, since Mr Trump could not be indicted, his options even on his conclusions were limited.

An accusation also would have required a face-to-face interview with the president to ascertain his state of mind, which Mr Trump repeatedly refused, instead offering only written answers to Mr Mueller's questions. The investigator did not subpoena him because of the "substantial delay" that would have entailed, which seems a terrible mistake. Even so, he writes that he could not conclude that "the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice".

But the Mueller report has served a purpose: it provides a road map for an obstruction indictment. It invites Congress, which is authorised to sit in judgment of a president, to investigate and, if necessary, impeach and try Mr Trump. And it strongly hints that, because of this investigation, he could be criminally indicted for obstruction after leaving office.

Further, it paints an appalling portrait of a White House operating with few legal and moral compunctions, and of a president saved only by his own non-compliant staff from committing plainly impeachable acts – such as when then-White House counsel Don McGahn rebuffed his order to fire Mr Mueller and later refused to lie about it.

Mr Trump’s supporters might chant "no collusion, no obstruction”. But henceforth, no one can claim they had no idea how unethical this administration is.

Democrats in Congress will continue to investigate but it has long been clear that the only trial Mr Trump will face is at the polls in 2020, not in the Senate before that.

He has the passionate support of about 30 per cent of the electorate, a strong economy, no major wars and the huge advantage of incumbency. There's a decent chance he could win.

But, given what is now incontrovertibly on the record, he certainly shouldn't.

Because of his operating framework, Mr Mueller couldn’t and wouldn’t label the sitting president a criminal, so he neither accused nor exonerated Mr Trump of obstruction. Yet his report is a damning indictment.

Are the standards for presidential conduct now merely defined by the plausibility of a criminal conviction? When did the bar sink so low?

Some Americans had hoped the report could help heal the country’s devastating divisions. Instead, the fissures have only deepened. The worst is clearly yet to come.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington