The closest thing to a bombshell in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is an Oval Office curse word. Nearly 80 pages into its exhaustive account of incidents that raised potential obstruction-of-justice concerns, the report recounts President Trump’s reaction on the day he learned that a special counsel would be appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election:
“The President slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f***ed.’ The President became angry and lambasted the [then-]Attorney General [Jeff Sessions] for his decision to recuse from the investigation, stating, ‘How could you let this happen, Jeff?’” Mueller writes that Trump then told Sessions to resign, began to argue that Mueller was compromised by conflicts of interest (including a six-year-old dispute over membership fees at a Trump golf course), and ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to direct Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to remove Mueller.
Pulled into a headline, Trump’s F-word outburst conjures up the bitter fury of a president with something to hide, and a seething determination to shut down the investigation. But the bombshell is a dud. As Mueller relates, Trump eventually returned Sessions’ resignation letter with the notation “Not accepted,” his advisers told him the conflict-of-interest accusations were “ridiculous,” and McGahn flatly refused to seek the special counsel’s ouster.
That was typical of Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice: They went nowhere. The president repeatedly lashed out at the Mueller investigation, repeatedly sought to curtail or weaken it — and was repeatedly talked down from the ledge by staffers who didn’t let him have his way. The report makes clear that Trump regarded the investigation with unfiltered and reckless hostility. But it also makes clear that he ultimately did nothing to block Mueller’s probe. The president, it seems, would have been only too glad to impede what he bitterly called “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history.” But he was too much of an bumbling blowhard to do so.
The special counsel’s most significant finding, of course, was that neither Trump nor anyone in his campaign ever “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But there were plenty of links between Trump confidants and the Russians, Mueller writes, and the campaign expected to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Donald Trump, Jr. in particular was almost giddy in his eagerness to exploit material leaked by the Kremlin’s hackers. There may not have been collusion, in other words, but there was sleaze aplenty.
Neither the administration nor its bitterest foes come out of this looking good. The special counsel’s report confirms that Trump and many in his circle are brazen grifters, and that he is a president devoid of honor or integrity. At the same time, the media wing of the anti-Trump “resistance,” which spent two years promoting the false narrative that Trump colluded with Russia to steal an election, has wrecked whatever remained of its reputation for objectivity.
It is abundantly clear that Mueller looked, and looked hard, for the “corrupt intent” that would justify a finding of criminality. It is just as clear that he couldn’t find it. Donald Trump’s future will not be decided by the Justice Department. The Mueller report’s bottom line — that while it “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” — is another way of saying that the president’s fate lies in the realm of politics, not prosecutors.
And “politics” means — what?
For some in the anti-Trump camp, the Mueller findings are a signpost pointing to impeachment. On CNN Thursday, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin read the report as “all but an explicit invitation to Congress to impeach the president.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced that she is signing on to a resolution to commence impeachment proceedings. To Max Boot, writing in The Washington Post, “the Mueller report reads like an impeachment referral.”
Don’t count on it. Savvy Democrats are not going to repeat the blunder Republicans made when they impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 and were punished by voters in the next election. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Thursday. Anti-Trump hotheads may yearn to “impeach the mother-[expletive],” in the crude phrasing of one newly elected member of Congress, but Hoyer and the party’s other top leaders know that isn’t going to happen — not now, not after the long-awaited Mueller report has let Trump off the hook.
The special counsel tried to find proof that Trump committed a crime. In the end he proved only that the president elected in 2016 is an obnoxious loudmouth. That isn’t grounds for impeachment. The Mueller report means that Trump’s presidency is safe through 2020. What happens after that is in the voters’ hands.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.