“Oh my God. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f***ked,” Donald Trump said when he learned about the appointment of a special counsel, we found out after the release of the Mueller report today. Considering this, it’s incredible how the president and his fellow Republicans managed to turn the narrative around after William Barr’s initial statement.
After the release of the minimally redacted report today, it will be more difficult for triumphant crows to echo round Congress (not that the Trump-backing members of the Republican Party won’t try.) But because of its nuance – something which we should always have expected from the tight-lipped, leak-proof, anti-sensationalist Robert Mueller – it will be equally difficult for Democrats to use this report as fodder for impeachment or meaningful sanction.
The devil is in the detail, of course. On 11 April 2017, for instance, Trump made a comment during a Fox Business Network interview about James Comey, who was at that point still the FBI director. “No, it’s not too late [for me to ask Comey to step down] but I have confidence in him. We’ll see what happens,” the president said, something which prompted his then-communications adviser Hope Hicks to suggest the comment should be removed from the interview. Trump asked for it to stay in, which Hicks thought was “strange”.
All of this is interesting in itself, but perhaps the most interesting part is that the president and his comms team were apparently confident that they could remove segments from an interview at will, essentially using Fox as a personal propaganda channel. This paints a picture of a press-presidential relationship which should be seen as a little too close for comfort.
The report details how the president attempted to influence its details and release, at one point stating: “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” It is clear that Trump himself saw nothing wrong with throwing his weight around in a way that was purely self-protective and borderline megalomaniacal.
He “engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation,” wrote Mueller. He “attempted to remove the Special Counsel; he sought to have Attorney General Sessions unrecuse himself and limit the investigation; he sought to prevent public disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 meeting between Russians and campaign officials; and he used public forums to attack potential witnesses who might offer adverse information and to praise witnesses who declined to cooperate with the government.” In other words, he took every available avenue.
It seems like these avenues weren’t specifically against the law, but they would be against most people’s moral expectations of a president. “No obstruction” doesn’t seem to fit the bill as an accurate descriptor of what occurred during Mueller’s compilation of the report, even if there is no evidence beyond reasonable doubt of collusion.
What’s clear is that the president wanted the release of this report delayed as long as possible. He claimed he “didn’t recall” meetings, details, names and dates over 30 times. He removed as many people as possible and failed to remove others (including Mueller himself) who he’d rather have seen gone. The fact that a number of people connected to the executive branch refused to carry out the president’s instructions is important and encouraging; however, the report also makes it clear that there was a struggle to maintain real democracy behind the scenes of the Trump presidency, which is deeply worrying.
It reads like Donald Trump, his son Donald Jr, his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner all showed a flagrant disregard for democratic institutions in the way we sometimes see rich and powerful people show flagrant disregard for established business practice when large organisations undergo a crisis. The panic which surrounded news that the president was going to be personally investigated reads like The Apprentice on steroids.
At the beginning of his presidency, there was a lot of talk about Trump being muzzled by the executive branch, more sensible officials, and lifelong Republicans sceptical about his leadership. There is certainly evidence that they tried. There’s also evidence that Trump strained against the leash on multiple occasions, and thought little of how this might impact the country as a whole.
The report also details how Russia’s Internet Research Agency used social media to organise rallies and put out pro-Trump content which was retweeted by “multiple US political figures”. It says that Facebook estimated up to 126 million people could have been contacted through groups on that platform alone; it’s thought Twitter added an extra 1.4 million. This is the most heavily redacted section of Mueller’s report, with almost all information about the structure of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) removed.
The IRA pre-dates Trump’s campaign and presidency, and its members went on a fact-finding mission to the US in 2014, according to Mueller. In early 2016, “internal IRA documents” showed support for Trump and “an opposition to candidate Clinton”, with one stating: “Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticise Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”
It’s difficult to glean exactly why both Sanders and Trump caught the eye of the Russians (at least for anyone who only has access to the redacted Mueller report), but we can speculate that an anti-establishment candidate with fewer links to the Washington political elite may have been to their liking. It seems that the IRA adopted a scattergun approach to social media initially, creating accounts posing as Black Lives Matter activists as well as right-wingers and even at one point a branch of the GOP in Tennessee, before doubling down on the most convenient (perhaps pliable?) candidate.
All of which is to say that Trump probably isn’t a mastermind with an evil plot to take over the world. He probably isn’t a businessman gone rogue with a secret agenda to hand America to Putin. What he most likely is -- and has been for a while -- is amoral, egotistical, narcissistic, in way over his head. And panicking.
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