Something happened on the path to "complete and total exoneration."
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But Mueller’s team of investigators constructed an intricate and detailed political case against the president, with vast implications for the current Congress and for leaders inside both parties in advance of the 2020 election.
The 448 vivid pages in the Mueller report amount to a catalog of norm-busting, if not law-breaking, by the president over the course of the last three years. Attorney General William Barr ended the major legal questions, yet the report raises profound political ones – notwithstanding the president’s claims of vindication.
The dizzying catalog of presidential actions – some known about for months and confirmed by Mueller, others exposed for the first time with Thursday’s release of a redacted version of his office’s report – serve as a reminder of the manifold areas in which Trump has remade the presidency in ways that once seemed unthinkable.
Mueller’s team identified "multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government," according to the report.
As a candidate, Trump was actively seeking ways to find emails that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had deleted, the report states.
Even if there were no crimes committed along the way, there did appear to be extensive attempts to cover things up, Mueller's team concluded. Investigators found multiple instances where the president and those speaking on his behalf intentionally misled the public about business interests, contacts, and day-to-day interactions involving the president, according to the report..
Barr argued Thursday that the president "took no act" to impede Mueller’s probe. Yet Mueller details in his report an array of "public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation."
Among the odd twists detailed by Mueller, the president appears to have been saved from himself by people around him who sometimes refused to follow his commands.
"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," according to the report.
Mueller’s report makes clear that evidence that the president may have obstructed justice is significant, even though it was not, in his team’s judgment, conclusive.
"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," the report states.
The report also includes a reminder that no president’s powers are unchecked.
"Congress has the authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice," according to the report.
Democrats in Congress are reading and listening. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that there are "stark" differences between Barr’s conclusions and Mueller’s report.
"Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller's report appears to undercut that finding," they wrote.
Immediate efforts on Capitol Hill will center on lawmakers gaining access to the full report, without redactions. Democrats will press Barr on his judgments next time he appears before Congress, and will push to have Mueller himself testify – promising potentially embarrassing moments for the president.
At least some congressional leaders are being promised access to a more complete version in the coming days.
Pro-impeachment forces have new ammunition for their push to hold the president accountable through the mechanism outlined in the Constitution. Functionally, though, that’s a long shot, given the approaching 2020 election and Republicans’ continued loyalty to the president.
On that front, it’s worth remembering that Trump has to stand for re-nomination in addition to re-election. Trump remains the overwhelming favorite inside his party, with no new cracks in his intra-party support appearing Thursday, though a first Republican challenger entered the primary fray just this week.
Republicans now have to decide not just if they’re comfortable with the president’s past behavior, but also with what he’s promising next. "TIME TO TURN THE TABLES," the Trump campaign announced Thursday, promoting a push to "investigate the investigators."
The Mueller report appears less likely to be a political game-changer than a stakes-raiser. It serves to clarify the political choices ahead – with the president’s conduct, as exposed by Mueller, among the key items on the ballot next year.
Among the startling revelations in the report was the president’s initial reaction to the news that a special counsel had been appointed in the first place: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm f*****," the president is described as having said.
On Thursday came a Trumpian coda. The president tweeted a "Game of Thrones"-inspired graphic on Twitter: "GAME OVER."
The political game is just starting, though. A report designed to answer questions about the 2016 election has posed important new ones about 2020 and beyond.