House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) was asked whether Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday gave him any pause about how President Donald Trump had behaved during the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Here’s how McCarthy responded: “No, this President has not done anything wrong in the process, so no, I don’t have a problem with this President.”
Really? That’s what McCarthy took from a) the 448-page Mueller report and b) Mueller’s five hours of testimony on Capitol Hill? That Mueller’s conclusions suggest the President had “not done anything wrong in the process”?
If so, McCarthy missed the boat. By a lot. Like the size of the Atlantic Ocean a lot.
What McCarthy seems to be saying is that because Mueller didn’t recommend charges against Trump — and Attorney General William Barr made the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice — that means, ipso facto, that Trump did nothing wrong here. Which, of course, is inaccurate on a variety of levels.
Start with the question of collusion. Mueller didn’t say there was no collusion. In fact, he detailed in the report — and again on Wednesday — that the Trump campaign not only welcomed but encouraged Russian involvement to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (That runs directly counter to the version of events that Trump allies offered.) And that Trump’s praise for and encouragement of WikiLeaks was “problematic,” adding that what Trump had done was give “some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal behavior.”
Remember that Mueller’s investigation established that although the Russian government “perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” and that “the campaign expected it would benefit electorally” from such efforts, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
“Did not establish” is not the same as “the Trump campaign did nothing wrong.”
Then there is the question of obstruction. Again, it’s important to note — right off the top — that Mueller did not clear Trump on the question of whether the President had sought to obstruct the investigation into Russian interference. Instead, the special counsel’s office made a decision early on that, according to Office of Legal Counsel guidelines, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime and, therefore, never even considered the possibility.
But what we know from Mueller’s report and his testimony is that Trump did lots of “wrong” things — even if they didn’t lead to him being charged with obstruction (due, at least in part, to the fact that the Justice Department said he couldn’t be charged with anything.) Quoting from the report:
“(I)f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” reads the Mueller report. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. … Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Among the obstructive behaviors by Trump documented by the report — and/or confirmed by Mueller on Wednesday:
1) Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller as special counsel in June 2017
2) Trump twice met with Corey Lewandowski and asked his former campaign manager to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he had to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation to only future election interference
3) Trump personally directed that a line be deleted from a statement attributed to his son Donald Trump Jr. that acknowledged the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians was ostensibly to get dirt on Hillary Clinton
4) When former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017, Trump urged Sessions to un-recuse himself in the investigation — and said doing so would make Sessions a “hero”
5) Trump did not tell the whole truth in his written answers to Mueller’s questions. Here’s the relevant exchange between Mueller and Rep. Val Demings (D-Florida) on Wednesday:
DEMINGS: Director Mueller, isn’t it fair to say that the President’s written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn’t answer many of your questions, but where he did his answers show that he wasn’t always being truthful.
MUELLER: There (ph) — I would say generally.
It’s impossible to look at even half of all of that and conclude that Trump “has not done anything wrong in the process.”
Look, I get what McCarthy is doing here. There’s zero benefit for him, politically or legislatively, to engage honestly on the question of whether the President behaved wrongly in the course of the Mueller investigation. By now every Republican elected official knows that if you criticize Trump, you are very likely to watch your political career go down the tubes — and quickly.
Still, it’s hard to imagine how McCarthy could keep a straight face when claiming that Trump “has not done anything wrong in the process.” What McCarthy can say — and should say — is that Mueller brought no charges against the President. That’s true — even if it overlooks the fact that Mueller had determined he could not bring any charges against the President. What McCarthy said instead is just flat wrong.