Did President Trump obstruct justice? While not all of the conduct that Special Counsel Robert Mueller considered would justify obstruction charges, some easily could. Trump did many things to try to impede investigations by the FBI and Mueller into his activities and those of his campaign. It is not surprising that Mueller declined to exonerate the president. But the more important question is how to hold Trump accountable.
Attorney General William Barr was right to reject obstruction charges, even if not all of his reasons for doing so were persuasive. According to long-standing Department of Justice guidelines, it would be unconstitutional to indict or criminally prosecute a sitting president, and there are strong arguments for that position. The remedies for misconduct by presidents include impeachment, denying them reelection, and prosecution after they leave office.
In other words, as long as Trump is president, the remedies are not legal but political–impeachment or voting him out of office next year. And currently, there are serious political obstacles to impeachment. As history tells us, impeachment proceedings are not effective without support from both sides of the aisle. Otherwise, they are seen as too partisan. And there was enough in Mueller’s report that was favorable to the president to preserve Republican support for him. Especially the absence of evidence of collusion with Russia and also that there was much more evidence of a desire to obstruct than of actual obstruction. With Trump’s backers still behind him, the reluctance of House Democratic leaders to put impeachment on the table is understandable.
Trump also may have been saved by his staff. While Richard Nixon’s aides often facilitated the misconduct that led to his resignation from office, the Mueller report describes many refusals of Trump aides to carry out directives designed to obstruct the investigations by the FBI and Mueller. There are many heroes in the story.
In the end, a final verdict on the Mueller investigation is likely to be rendered by voters in November 2020.