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Editorial

Watching his back, Trump lets down our guard

When it came to charging Trump, Mueller hesitated
Special counsel Robert Mueller cited a previous Justice Department policy that said a president can’t be indicted, in his decision making . (Anush Elbakyan/Globe Staff)

Take a step back and look at what special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, most of which was finally made public on Thursday, tells us. A foreign country launched a purposeful, insidious attack on the 2016 election, designed to both pick the winner and deepen our political and racial divisions.

And the president — the man with the constitutional responsibility to protect this country — repeatedly tried to thwart the investigation that helped get to the bottom of it.

That ought to outrage all Americans, regardless of politics. Democracy requires fair elections, and rampant foreign interference undermines our political system. Mueller spent nearly two years investigating Russian election meddling, and what he found was nothing less than an assault on the people of the United States.

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Any other administration would see this as an act of aggression by a foreign power intent on damaging the electoral process. By a variety of methods, Russian intelligence agents launched a “sweeping and systematic” effort to help Donald Trump (and, initially, Bernie Sanders) beat Hillary Clinton. Their strategies included social media campaigns using fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; hacking Democratic Party officials; and deploying sophisticated efforts to distribute stolen e-mails in a way designed to hurt Clinton’s candidacy.

A president should want to know just what happened in 2016, and should be leading the effort to prevent it from happening again in 2020. A president should be hammering social media firms for failures that made it so easy for Russian meddling to occur on their platforms, and should be demanding they do better next time. Congress, which has grilled social media executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, should haul them in again in light of Mueller’s findings, but the country needs a president engaged with the problem too.

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This president, unfortunately, appears incapable of distinguishing his political interests from the country’s needs. In his eyes, the questions swirling in 2017 about Russian interference detracted from what he cared about: his upset victory. And as the 448-page report laid out, he turned his pique into outrageous action.

The report documented 10 instances in which Trump attempted to obstruct the probe, including an effort to have Mueller himself removed. He also fired the former FBI director, James Comey. As Mueller points out, all those acts form a disturbing pattern: Trump tried to use his “official power to limit the scope of the investigation” and also made “direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony.”

That has provoked serious questions about whether the president obstructed justice. The special counsel did not clear him on that score. “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,” Mueller wrote. The president’s defenders, including Attorney General William Barr, have attempted to frame the findings as a narrow legal question, and have argued that the evidence wouldn’t support criminal charges against Trump.

But it’s not a criminal question. It’s for Congress, ultimately, to decide whether the president’s obstructive actions documented by Mueller are acceptable in our democracy.

Still, focusing just on obstruction poses the risk of obscuring an equally disturbing problem. The actions described in the Mueller report aren’t just evidence of potential obstruction — they’re also evidence that we have a president who cares more about politics than protecting the country. The integrity of American elections is under attack, and malicious foreign actors undoubtedly will be back in 2020. It’s on President Trump to show that he understands the threat and will start taking it seriously now.

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