Late in the fourth quarter of a 2003 game between Texas A&M and Oklahoma, Aggie defender Johnny Jolly tackled the ball carrier for a loss, jumped up and did a triumphant dance. It would have been entirely appropriate except that Oklahoma was leading 77-0.
The disciples of Donald Trump have been engaged in a similarly myopic display since Attorney General William Barr reported that the special counsel did not find Trump colluded with the Russian government to affect the 2016 election. They are celebrating under circumstances that should elicit humility, not hubris.
In the first place, they are responding to a cryptic summary of a report that has not been made public. If and when more of Robert Mueller’s report comes to light, it may cast a harsh light on the president.
Barr, after all, chose his words with delicate care. He said the investigation “did not establish” that Trump colluded with the Kremlin. That’s not the same as saying it established that Trump did not collude. My inability to prove that a frog is ugly does not prove that the frog is handsome.
On the second topic, obstruction of justice, Mueller furnished no grounds for presidential gloating. Barr quoted the special counsel: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr said Mueller found “evidence on both sides of the question.” What he found on the guilty side will be relevant to the public’s judgment of the president’s fitness for office.
Even if Trump is not convincingly implicated in these specific felonies, he has been discredited by a mass of evidence on a host of matters, including some that may ensnare him in the criminal justice system.
His lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by paying off women who said they had sex with Trump “so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election.” Federal prosecutors said Cohen did so “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” that being Trump. The president was spared indictment, but Justice Department guidelines don’t allow the indictment of a president.
The hush money payments were not the only brazen acts of deception by candidate Trump. He repeatedly denied having any business interests whatsoever in Russia, but in January his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, quoted Trump saying he tried to arrange a deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow “from the day I announced to the day I won.”
Trump’s financial interest in that project, and others that may not be known, could help explain his bizarre efforts to indulge, flatter and excuse anything that Vladimir Putin does. But maybe Trump is not acting out of naked greed. Maybe he is just the malleable dupe of a nasty autocrat who has acted to subvert American democracy.
It could be Trump is not a crook but a fool. As campaign slogans go, that one lacks something. So does “still not indicted.” But they are about the best that can be said of him and his conspicuous pattern of unsavory behavior.
Similar questions persist about his relations with the government of Saudi Arabia, whose agents murdered a U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi, last year. Trump claims he has no financial ties with the country, but that’s not what he said in 2015. “I like the Saudis,” he bragged. “They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman insists he is innocent, and Trump has given him the benefit of the doubt. “You have to be willfully blind” to buy that story, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.
In December, Trump was forced to shut down his foundation after the attorney general of New York found “a shocking pattern of illegality,” including “self-dealing transactions that directly benefited Mr. Trump.” But the criminal investigation of his fraudulent charity continues.
From what is known about Mueller’s report, which covered only a narrow range of Trump’s many squalid practices, we can’t conclude that the president is a criminal. But we have abundant proof that he is the worst person ever to become president as well as the least competent and conscientious president ever.
Yet his defenders treat a decision not to pursue criminal charges as a shining affirmation of his personal integrity and presidential excellence. Their response to the Mueller findings confirms that when it comes to judging Trump, they don’t have low standards. They have no standards.