This is terrible,” President Donald Trump said, at a meeting in the Oval Office on May 17, 2017, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions told him of the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel. Mueller’s mandate was to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, the Trump campaign’s possible coördination with those efforts, and related matters. According to notes taken by Jody Hunt, Sessions’s chief of staff, who was present, Trump said, “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” He then turned his wrath on the Attorney General, who had recused himself from the investigation, even though his job, Trump said angrily, was to protect him: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?”
The description of that confrontation, in Mueller’s four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page report, which was released, with redactions, on Thursday, does not include Trump’s pointing to a particular secret or nest of illegality that he feared Mueller would discover. The special counsel, whose team of lawyers and F.B.I. agents interviewed some five hundred witnesses, was not able to establish that there was any coördination or conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians. (He has, however, issued indictments of more than two dozen Russian nationals.) Instead, the looming disaster that Trump foresaw was as indiscriminate as his rage (“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your Presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything”) and as boundless as his self-pity (“This is the worst thing that ever happened to me”). His outburst demonstrates what the Mueller report shows to be his guiding presumption: that being President means that you are protected from legal scrutiny. The May 17th meeting is presented as evidence under the rubric of “The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel,” one in a series of acts that the report defines as a potential obstruction of justice.
Mueller did not make a “traditional prosecutorial” judgment on whether that evidence amounted to crimes that should be further pursued. Attorney General William Barr, who succeeded Sessions, said, in a press conference just before the report’s release, that constitutional questions about whether a sitting President could be charged with a crime had not been a determining factor for Mueller. That assertion seems to be contradicted by the report, which cites those very concerns while noting that the special counsel’s demurral does not mean that the President is “above the law.” A crime can be prosecuted later, once a President is out of office, and, prior to that, there are “constitutional processes” available to Congress. The most notable is impeachment; whether that option is a wise one, given the finding on collusion and the proximity of the 2020 election, is a question that the report leaves to others to answer. (The report does say that “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”)
Barr, for his part, seems amenable to Trump’s view that the Attorney General ought to protect the President. In his press conference, Barr repeated a phrase often found in Trump’s tweets, including at least three on Thursday: “No collusion.” He suggested that Mueller had come to see Trump’s potentially obstructive acts as honest emotional responses to false and “relentless” speculation in the media and to the scheming of his political opponents. This is less a legal defense than a replay of an old apologia for Trump: he may be a reckless tweeter, an insulter of allies, and an outright bigot, but at least he is “authentic.”
There have been theories put forward in the press that turned out to be overstated or untrue, and the Mueller report undermines the more florid ones. Based on the report, Trump is not an agent of the Russians, receiving direct instructions from Moscow. (You don’t have to be a spy to be a bad President.) And yet the stories that often unsettled Trump—impelling him to commit potentially obstructive acts—were accurate. An example of this scenario, and of how obstruction can build on obstruction, involves Trump’s attempts to persuade Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to help him remove Mueller. In June, 2017, the Washington Post reported that the special counsel was investigating Trump for obstruction, apparently in connection with the firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director. McGahn told Mueller that, in the days that followed, Trump got on the phone and instructed him to call Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who had authority over the investigation, and “tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.” McGahn had already looked at these supposed conflicts and dismissed them as “silly” (one involved golf), but Trump pressed him. “You gotta do this,” he said. “Mueller has to go.”
McGahn decided that he would rather resign than comply; he told Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, that the President had asked him “to do crazy shit.” McGahn and Mueller both stayed on, but a few months later the Times and the Post ran stories about the incident. Trump pressured McGahn to publicly deny the accounts, which he refused to do. (Another aide said that Trump told him that McGahn was a liar.) The Mueller report identifies both of Trump’s alleged acts as potentially obstructive, and adds that there is evidence “that the President knew that he should not have made those calls to McGahn.”
The point about the President’s intent is crucial, because a question in determining whether obstruction of justice occurred is whether someone acted “corruptly.” Many factors—“personal, political, or both,” as the report puts it—may be at work. The number of investigations that have spun off from the Mueller probe—on matters ranging from hush-money payments to lies that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, told about lobbying he’d done for Ukraine—suggest that the President had cause to worry. Trump may think that acting corruptly is just something that Presidents do, out of habit or opportunity. (“You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations?” McGahn reported Trump as saying, in the course of a separate, also potentially obstructive effort to get Sessions to “unrecuse” himself.) But thinking that no one can or will stop you from breaking a law does not make that law any less real. The true source of Trump’s horror at Mueller’s investigation may have been the sudden knowledge that he was just as accountable as anybody else. That sort of realization might ruin a President, but it’s precisely what the Presidency needs.