Over the past two years, many Americans feared that President Donald Trump would trigger a constitutional crisis by firing special counsel Robert Mueller and shutting down the Russia investigation. Mueller’s final report makes one thing clear: The investigation survived not because of the president’s faithfulness to the rule of law, but because of the faithlessness of Trump’s subordinates when they were instructed to subvert it.
“Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI,” Mueller wrote in his 448-page report, which was released with partial redactions on Tuesday. “McGahn did not tell the acting attorney general that the special counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the president’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the president’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the president’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the president’s multiple demands that he do so.”
Their unwillingness to carry out the president’s wishes saved all of them from obstruction of justice charges, Mueller wrote. The special counsel explained that while his report “does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” There’s another troubling takeaway from Mueller’s account, though. One can’t help but notice that all of the people listed by Mueller no longer directly work for him. Would their replacements also be willing to stand up to the president?
After all, Trump infamously fired James Comey, the former FBI director, in May 2017 because of the Russia investigation. He also fired Jeff Sessions, who ignored Trump’s pleas to un-recuse himself from the inquiry while serving as attorney general, last November. Rick Dearborn, the White House deputy chief of staff who declined to pressure Sessions on Trump’s behalf, left the White House early last year. And Don McGahn, who disregarded Trump’s orders to fire Mueller on two separate occasions, left his post as White House counsel last October. (Corey Lewandowski never held a government job; he currently works as a TV commentator.)
The question is no less urgent now that the Russia investigation is over. Other inquiries are still active that could draw the president’s ire. Foremost among them is the Southern District of New York’s ongoing investigation into the Trump Organization, which began with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s conviction for illegal hush-money payments. Federal prosecutors in D.C. are reportedly probing the Trump inaugural committee’s donors and expenditures. Mueller also listed more than a dozen redacted matters that he referred elsewhere in the Justice Department, though it’s not clear whether any are connected to Trump or his associates.
Sometimes, Trump’s underlings would defy him in lackadaisical ways. Mueller’s report details how Trump summoned Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, in July 2017 and instructed him to tell Sessions to curtail Mueller’s inquiry or consider himself fired. Lewandowski failed to schedule a meeting with Sessions, who had already recused himself from the case, then tried to get White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn to pass along the message instead. According to Mueller, Dearborn agreed to deliver the note but didn’t follow through. Trump does not seem to have followed up on the matter. He harshly criticized Sessions in a New York Times interview the same day, which seems to have sated Trump.
At other times, his subordinates defied him more directly. McGahn told Mueller about two separate instances where Trump ordered him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and fire Mueller. McGahn didn’t carry out the order in either event because he knew it would trigger a constitutional crisis on par with Richard Nixon’s purge of the Justice Department during the Watergate crisis. “McGahn was concerned about having any role,” Mueller wrote, “because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not ‘Saturday Night Massacre Bork.’”
In these episodes and others detailed by Mueller, what saves Trump from disaster is a group of subordinates who try to dampen his worst impulses instead of inflaming them. The president seemed to understand this dynamic on some level. When his rage subsided, those subordinates rarely seemed to face immediate consequences for their disobedience. “[McGahn] had not told the President directly that he planned to resign, and when they next saw each other the President did not ask McGahn whether he had followed through with calling Rosenstein,” Mueller wrote about one of Trump’s attempts to fire him.
Over time, however, those staffers have left Trump’s orbit after losing his favor. Among those who remain are figures like Stephen Miller, the domestic-policy adviser whom Mueller describes as drafting the original letter in May 2017 to fire Comey. Mueller’s account notes that other Trump advisers like McGahn, Steve Bannon, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to dissuade the president from his decision. Miller isn’t described as one of them. In other circumstances, he’s worked to undercut Trump officials who resist his extreme and often legally dubious immigration policy proposals. Miller persuaded Trump to purge the Department of Homeland Security’s upper ranks last month in favor of like-minded hardliners.
What’s more, Trump’s experiences with the Russia investigation don’t seem to have deterred him from trying to interfere in the Justice Department’s affairs. In February, the Times reported that Trump called acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker last fall to ask if he could place Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, back in charge of the Trump Organization investigation. Berman had already recused himself from the case, and Whitaker apparently did not follow through on the president’s thinly veiled request. The Times noted that Trump “soured” on Whitaker soon thereafter.
Trump also now has an attorney general who may be more amenable to his meddling: Bill Barr proved himself to be a loyal foot soldier for the president over the past month. His March letter to Congress announcing the end of Mueller’s inquiry obscured the gravity of the special counsel’s findings. Then, on Thursday, Barr gave an obsequious press conference where he painted the report’s damning contents in the best possible terms for the president. Barr even defended Trump’s behavior over the past two years, telling reporters that Trump had been “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”
A recurring subplot in the Mueller report’s obstruction section is Trump’s weary quest to find the unscrupulous lackeys who would do his bidding, no matter the legal or political repercussions. The past two years have shown the chaos and damage that Trump could create when held back by his own staffers. What’s in store for the country now that those tenuous checks on his worst impulses are gone?