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The Mueller Report’s Lasting Damage to Trump

A lesson from Watergate: Never underestimate the power of political gravity.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When transcripts of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes were released during Watergate, they were punctuated by the White House with the prissy editing notation: “Expletive Deleted.” As edited by Attorney General William Barr’s blue pencil, the Mueller report has added a new phrase to the political lexicon: “Harm to Ongoing Matter.”

Some of Barr’s redactions appear to be the legalistic equivalent of the cavalry riding over the hill to save Trump in the last reel of an old Western. Discussing the Russian hacking of Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign, Mueller and his team provocatively wrote, “In addition, some witnesses said that Trump was aware that [Harm to Ongoing Matter] at a time when public reports stated that Russian intelligence officials were behind the hacks, and that Trump privately sought information about future WikiLeaks releases.”

Before Republicans shout “no collusion” with the repetitiveness of a mobster invoking the Fifth Amendment, they should be challenged to come up with a benign interpretation of the missing words in the above sentence.

The Mueller report didn’t deliver the smoking gun of unrealistic liberal fantasies. (“The money is being wired to the Cayman Islands. Love, Vlad.”) But beyond making clear how close Mueller came to recommending the indictment of a sitting president for obstruction of justice, the report is brimming with tantalizing clues about the uncanny synchronization between the Trump campaign and the Russians—and may increasingly diminish the public’s confidence in giving the president another four years.

During the 2016 Democratic convention, Trump made his provocative appeal about Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Trump apologists have long insisted that the former reality-TV host was joking. But as Mueller’s team dryly notes, referring to Russian military intelligence, “Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s private office.”

Up to now, Trump’s approval ratings as president have proven impervious to everything from the firing of FBI Director James Comey to the cruel child separation policy at the border. Even Barr’s initial letter, which mendaciously claimed that Trump was fully exonerated by Mueller, failed to move the needle. According to the polling averages at FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s approval has been stuck at 42 percent for more than a month.

As a result, the standard TV talking point (uttered gleefully on Fox News and mournfully on MSNBC) is that nothing about the final curtain of “Waiting for Mueller” has changed Trump’s fate. This may sound like an extreme example of the triumph of hope and despair over experience, but never dismiss the power of political gravity. Nixon collapsed in the polls during the mid-1973 Senate Watergate hearings and then drifted slowly downward until his resignation in August 1974, when just 24 percent of the public approved of him. Even a year before Nixon flew into exile at San Clemente, 57 percent of Americans already agreed in a Harris Poll that “Watergate has turned out to be the worst scandal in our history.”

Beyond the legal arguments, beyond Barr’s transparent efforts at Trumpian spin, the Mueller report represents the 2019 version of the Watergate hearings. Sadly, there is no folksy Sam Ervin or mainstream Republicans like Howard Baker willing to be persuaded by the evidence. But the dense, yet often riveting 448-page Mueller treatise offers the definitive word about what we know about Trump’s relationship with the Russians and his efforts at obstruction of justice. Vindicating many investigative articles denounced as “Fake News,” Mueller’s handiwork has an authority and a gravity that no journalist can match.

Part of the joy of the Watergate hearings was the parade of colorful minor witnesses like Tony Ulasewicz, the retired New York detective, with an accent lifted from 1930s movies, who delivered hush money in cash to the plotters behind the break-in. The Mueller report offers its own comic-opera moments.

Shortly after Trump was proclaimed president-elect, a Russian official from the embassy called Trump press secretary Hope Hicks at the victory celebration. But the former Ralph Lauren model failed to understand his accented English, so he emailed her the following morning from a Gmail account with the subject line, “Message from Putin.” With the competence that is a trademark of all Trump advisers, Hicks emailed foreign-policy visionary Jared Kushner with the plea, “Can you look into this? Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!” The president’s son-in-law decided to vet the legitimacy of the message with ubiquitous Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But Kushner had forgotten Kislyak’s name—and had to desperately call Russian expert Dimitri Simes, the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, for help.

Mueller offers new intriguing details about a post-election meeting in Trump Tower featuring Kislyak, Kushner, and soon-to-be-disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn. Kislyak helpfully suggested that he had generals in Moscow eager to brief the Trump transition team on Syria. When Flynn pointed out that the transition team lacked secure communications, Kushner brightly suggested that they could have the secret conversation from inside the Russian embassy. If Kislyak had not objected, Kushner would have blundered into one of the most humiliating moments in recent diplomatic history: letting generals in Moscow lecture an incoming president’s transition team about a major Middle Eastern point of contention from inside the Russian embassy.

Mueller’s report confirms most of the already known details about the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower set up by Donald Trump Jr. and attended by Kushner in hopes of getting derogatory information from the Russians about the Clinton Foundation. The idea for this meeting was so sketchy that, Mueller reveals, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort (yes, Paul Manafort) warned the Trump family members to be careful since they would never gain anything useful from the encounter.

Mueller portrays Trump and his associates as a gang of grifters too incompetent to pull off a full-fledged conspiracy, endorsing the dim-bulb theory of their legal innocence. As his report explains in an uninflected tone, “On the facts here, the government would unlikely be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the June 9 meeting participants had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful.”

Like the Watergate hearings, the Mueller report produced unlikely heroes who did the right thing during their brief moments in the spotlight. Take Jody Hunt, who in 2017 was chief of staff for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the note-taker at the meeting when Sessions told Trump that Mueller had been appointed special counsel, Hunt made the instantaneous decision to record the president verbatim as he shouted, “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”

If only.

My advice to you: Instead of obsessively parsing the overnight polls on Mueller and checking for any cracks in Trump’s solid wall of GOP support, relax for a week as things settle down and public opinion begins to coalesce. Most 2020 swing voters will never read the Mueller report, nor did they squander Thursday afternoon watching the pundit parade on cable TV. But in the weeks ahead, especially when Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill, these up-for-grabs voters will repeatedly hear the stories about Trump and the Russians.

And, hopefully, they will begin to ask themselves, “Why did the Russians so badly want this man in the White House?”