Donald Trump tried to get his version of events out first. Typically, it consisted of a single word, in a tweet, in capitals: “EXONERATED.” Today we finally got to see the authorised version and, to no one’s surprise, it consists of the direct opposite, but in a long report, in lower case, and hedged about with qualifications.
Robert Mueller, the independent counsel, did not conclude that the president committed a crime, but he also did “not exonerate him”.
The picture painted by the report is not a flattering one of the president. The verbatim account of his response to the appointment of Mr Mueller to investigate links between Russia and the Trump election campaign is colourfully plausible: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”
The report then recounts Mr Trump’s attempts to make Don McGahn, his legal counsel, call Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to tell him to fire Mr Mueller. Mr McGahn thought about resigning but in the end just ignored the instruction. So it might be said that Mr Trump tried to obstruct justice but did not succeed.
In all the hoopla surrounding the publication of Mr Mueller’s report, however, it is easy to miss the story. Mr Trump is patently unfit for the high position he holds. He wilfully flouts all the norms of modern American democracy and has little respect for constitutional law. But he has not yet been found guilty of a crime – still less a “high crime or misdemeanour” that might warrant his removal from office.
What we knew before the Mueller report was bad enough: Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election in an attempt to help Mr Trump; Mr Trump was glad to have that help; his team met the Russians; and the president has not been open about those contacts.
It is hard to say that this interference swayed the outcome of the election; equally, the result was so close that it is hard to say that it did not. And now we know that it is also hard to say that these contacts and common interest amounted to the legal definition of collusion. But it is an unedifying spectacle – a candidate in a sophisticated democracy appearing to solicit help from another country, and a historical enemy, in an election.
The other part of the bigger story, however, is that the inquiry into Mr Trump’s Russian links was always essentially political – although Mr Mueller deserves some praise for trying so hard to adhere to the legal formalities.
The first thing that any student of the US system understands is that the impeachment and removal of a president is political rather than legal. Impeachment – that is, drawing up the charges against a president – requires a majority of the House of Representatives, while conviction and removal requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
That threshold was never going to be reached. And those who had hoped that the Mueller investigation might provide the material by which to test whether a president is immune from an ordinary criminal prosecution have today been disappointed. Mr Mueller has scrupulously observed the legal principle of innocent unless proven guilty. He has “not exonerated” Mr Trump, but neither has he found him guilty.
That means we must reach a political, rather than a legal, conclusion: Mr Trump is a terrible president who does not deserve to be re-elected.
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