The problem with Trump’s ‘no obstruction’ claim: it’s plainly false

Updated

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/19/19, 11:08 PM ET

Mueller Report: Outline for Prosecution

Rachel Maddow hones in on Volume II of the Mueller report the day after its release and shows why it could serve as a roadmap to prosecution after Trump leaves office.
Rachel Maddow hones in on Volume II of the Mueller report the day after its release and shows why it could serve as a roadmap to prosecution after Trump leaves office.
I can imagine some Americans being confused by the recent talk about Donald Trump’s possible impeachment. After all, the public has been told for the last month that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was great news for the White House.

The president enjoyed a “victory lap.” He declared “game over.” His critics and skeptics were despondent. The special counsel proved, definitively, there was “no collusion” and “no obstruction.” Trump was “totally and completely exonerated.”

Over the last seven days, the president has published the words “no obstruction” on Twitter seven times, including this pair on Saturday:

“Despite the fact that the Mueller Report should not have been authorized in the first place & was written as nastily as possible by 13 (18) Angry Democrats who were true Trump Haters, including highly conflicted Bob Mueller himself, the end result is No Collusion, No Obstruction!

“The end result of the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history is No Collusion with Russia (and No Obstruction). Pretty Amazing!”

What’s pretty amazing is that the president actually seems to expect the public to believe what he’s saying. Every time Trump pretends the Mueller report exonerated him, he’s making clear that he hasn’t read the document and he’s desperately counting on the public to have not read it, either.

In the weeks leading up to the release of the redacted Mueller report, the discourse was dominated by misleading spin, crafted by a partisan attorney general who seemed principally concerned with his president’s political interests, and echoed by the White House. It was, for a while, all we had to go on, and it extended a degree of plausibility to Trump’s celebratory posture.

But on Thursday morning, the gaslight went out. We’ve now seen the Mueller report, and to pretend its revelations aren’t devastating is comparable to Richard Nixon, following the release of his Oval Office tapes in 1974, declaring, “See? The recordings clearly prove how awesome I am!”

If you missed Friday night’s show, there’s a point Rachel emphasized that I want to revisit, because I think it’s likely to serve as the foundation for an important political debate in the coming weeks and months.

The special counsel, as Republicans are eager to remind you, did not indict Donald Trump for obstruction of justice. That’s not because Mueller lacked evidence of wrongdoing; it’s because the special counsel felt bound by Justice Department guidelines on the impermissibility of charging a sitting president.

The White House and its allies are clinging to this decision like a life-preserver, interpreting the lack of an indictment as a finding of “no obstruction.” That’s effectively backwards.

In his report, Mueller presented a series of factual accounts, detailing a variety of instances in which Trump’s misconduct appeared to be illegal. The report is not vague: each allegation is specific and supported by evidence.

One of the more outlandish schemes Trump concocted, for example, involved dispatching Corey Lewandowski to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the Russia scandal investigation, at which point Sessions was supposed to deliver a speech, limiting Mueller’s investigation into future election interference. (How the special counsel would investigate events that haven’t happened is unclear.) The president apparently saw this scheme as a clever way to gut the ongoing federal investigation without firing the special counsel.

Putting aside the comedic qualities, note how the Mueller report responded to the scheme: it fleshed out in detail why Trump’s actions constituted an “obstructive act,” were a “nexus to an official preceding,” and were motivated by improper “intent.”

Why is this important? Because Robert Mueller went to great lengths in his report to spell out the three elements that constitute criminal obstruction of justice, and then concluded that the sitting president of the United States crossed each of the legal lines – not just in the hilarious Lewandowski scheme, but over and over again.

According to the White House’s truly absurd version of events, Mueller carefully and thoroughly documented the instances in which Trump committed obstruction of justice, and met the statutory thresholds for criminal misconduct, all as a way of telling the public, “No obstruction.”

To think Team Trump’s argument makes sense is to pretend reality has no meaning.

For the president’s allies, the fact that Mueller didn’t indict the president simply ends the conversation. If Mueller thought Trump broke the law, he would’ve brought criminal charges. He didn’t, which, the Republican argument goes, means it’s time to move on.

The report tells a different story. Mueller couldn’t indict a sitting president, but he did spend a couple hundred pages documenting Trump’s alleged criminal misdeeds, detailing how they meet the statutory thresholds, in the process laying the groundwork for (a) prosecution once Trump is out of office; (b) impeachment proceedings in Congress; or (c) perhaps both.

Mueller’s report added, “[W]e conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.”

Are we honestly supposed to believe the special counsel and his team found it important to “preserve the evidence” against the president in order to exonerate him, or does common sense tell us the evidence was preserved for future proceedings against the alleged criminal?

Trump has repeatedly lied about being exonerated in this scandal, but this instance is unique because the Republican’s argument is directly contradicted by hundreds of pages of evidence resulting from a lengthy federal investigation.

For all the frustrations surrounding partisans talking past one another, there’s an easy to cut through the noise and the spin: just read the darn report. It says the opposite of what Trump claims it says.