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Exonerated? We've only just begun, Mr. President

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

"Game over."

That's what President Donald Trump tweeted, along with an image of himself strolling through a "Game of Thrones"-style fog in the last minutes before the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's long-awaited report on Russia's interference in our 2016 elections.

Game over? No way. As an old Virginia gentleman once told me after I mentioned that the Civil War ended in 1865, "That wasn't the ending. That was only halftime."

Such was the message Mueller suggested in so many words with his 448-page report, the release of which came after weeks of media spin by the Trump White House, claiming there was really nothing to see here.

"No collusion, no obstruction (of justice)" has been the president's mantra, which was partly repeated by Attorney General William Barr, who said "no collusion" 16 times in his 22-minute news conference Thursday morning before the report's release.

But those "no collusion" assertions were shot down by Mueller's report, which emphasized, first, that "conspiracy," not collusion, between Trump's campaign and Russia would be the proper federal charge under consideration. And, second, that Mueller did not find enough evidence to justify that charge even as his investigation describes "numerous links" and evidence that the Trump campaign "expected it would benefit" from Russia's effort. Barr also sounded less like the nation's top lawyer than Trump's personal attorney as he offered what amounted to alternative narratives and lame excuses for the president's suspicious behavior. "There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks," Barr said.

Bring out the teeny violin. Here Barr sounded a lot like President Richard Nixon, whose excuses for the Watergate scandal didn't save him from being forced to resign to avoid looming impeachment.

On obstruction of justice, the charge that brought Nixon down, Mueller's report cites at least 10 episodes of possible obstruction by Trump. They include trying to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself from the Mueller probe.

They also include the firing of FBI Director James Comey after Trump allegedly pressured him to drop the bureau's investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.

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Contrary to Trump's "deep state" paranoia, the report offers breathtaking scenes of his aides taking extraordinary measures to prevent Trump from getting himself into deeper trouble. For example, White House counsel Don McGahn defied the president's repeated efforts to fire Mueller. Sessions, as attorney general, defied the president's order to unrecuse himself from the Mueller probe to help protect Trump, even though recusal was the proper ethical thing to do after disclosure of his own contacts with Russians during the campaign. The report also said Trump asked former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask Sessions to publicly call the probe "unfair" and limit it to election interference. An unwilling Lewandowski tried to pass the task off to Rick Dearborn, a White House staffer and Sessions' former chief of staff, who also took no action, the report said.

Yet despite some apparently heroic efforts to save Trump from himself, the biggest scandal Mueller reveals is the portrait of chaos, deception, palace intrigues and moral rot -- almost all of which is devoted not so much to the nation's needs as to the greater glory of Donald Trump.

Now comes the question of what is to be done about it, particularly by Democrats who are being pressured by their own left-progressive wing to hold impeachment hearings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have urged the party's left to tap the brakes on their impeachment drive. With only a year and a half to go until the next election, as Pelosi recently said, "He's just not worth it."

Besides, news that Trump might be a crook has not shocked many voters, after years of headlines to that effect.

Most voters I have spoken with outside of Washington's political hive haven't paid a lot of attention to the Russia probe. Their most important issue, they tell me, is still, "Who's on my side?"

By that measure, I think the most damaging disclosure in the Mueller report may be to Trump's image as a regular guy who cares about serving his country. Mueller's report suggests that Trump cares first, foremost and almost exclusively about himself. That game goes on.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2019 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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