After nearly three years of investigation, after hundreds of interviews and thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, after scores of indictments and court hearings and guilty pleas, after endless hours of cable-television and dinner-table speculation, the moment of reckoning has arrived.
It will be a reckoning for President Trump, to be sure, but also for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media and, yes, for the system as a whole. The delivery of Mr. Mueller’s report to the Justice Department on Friday marked a turning point that will shape the remainder of Mr. Trump’s presidency and test the viability of American governance.
Washington has been waiting for Mr. Mueller’s findings for so long and invested in them so much that it may be hard for what he has delivered to live up to the breathless anticipation. But once released, the Mueller report will transform the political landscape, fueling calls for the president’s impeachment or providing him fodder to claim vindication — or possibly, in this live-in-your-own-reality moment, both at the same time.
Democrats on Friday played down the notion that the report would be the final word, fearing that anything less than a bombshell would undercut their own drive to investigate Mr. Trump not only on Russia’s election interference but on the myriad other subjects that have drawn their attention. Mr. Trump, for his part, had engaged in a particularly manic Twitter spree lately, assailing the “witch hunt” and the “hoax” and everyone he blames for them, like his fellow Republicans John McCain and Jeff Sessions, in what some had interpreted as a sign of his own anxiety before the special counsel’s verdict. But he was reported to appear relieved with early reports on Friday.
The fact that Mr. Mueller issued no further indictments as he wrapped up on Friday and never charged any Americans alleging criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia emboldened the president’s Republican allies, who promptly interpreted the results as exonerating him without having seen the report itself.
Yet whatever the final conclusions, the Mueller investigation has already cast a cloud over Mr. Trump and his presidency. The special counsel has demonstrated that Russia intervened in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Mr. Trump, that the Trump campaign welcomed Russians promising incriminating information on behalf of their government about Hillary Clinton and that his advisers knew about stolen Democratic emails in advance.
The investigation has demonstrated as well that Mr. Trump was seeking to do business in Russia even as a presidential candidate longer than he had previously disclosed and that he surrounded himself with crooks and liars in the form of advisers who repeatedly dissembled to investigators. That includes his campaign chairman, who is going to prison for that and a variety of financial crimes.
Whether any of that adds up to impeachable offenses remained an open question. Mr. Trump has repeated the phrase “no collusion” so often — 71 times on Twitter, according to the Trump Twitter Archive, and many more in speeches, interviews and other public statements — that he effectively set the bar so that anything short of a taped telephone conversation with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could be interpreted as vindication.
Moreover, the president and his allies have raised enough questions about the conduct of his investigators to convince many of his supporters that the real scandal is the “deep state” trying to thwart the will of the democratic system by dislodging him from office. The people pursuing him, Mr. Trump argues, are motivated by partisanship or personal bias.
He has complained on Twitter about the “witch hunt” 183 times, according to the archive, and many more in other settings, including to reporters on Friday morning before leaving the White House for a long weekend in Florida. A poll by USA Today and Suffolk University found that 50 percent of Americans agreed that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry was a witch hunt and that Mr. Trump had been subjected to more investigations than previous presidents because of politics.
And yet the swirl of scandal around Mr. Trump extends well beyond Mr. Mueller’s inquiry, which was largely limited to issues related to Russia’s election interference and any efforts by the president or his aides to obstruct the investigation. Other federal, state and congressional investigations are looking into his various entities and allies, including his business, his inaugural organization and his foundation.
Federal prosecutors in New York have already implicated the president in a scheme to violate campaign finance laws by arranging hush payments to keep two women from publicly discussing their claims to have had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump before the 2016 election, affairs he has denied.
Mr. Trump has also been accused of cheating on his taxes, violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause barring a president from taking money from foreign states, exaggerating his true wealth to obtain bank financing and other offenses. The sheer volume of allegations lodged against Mr. Trump and his circle defies historical parallel, possibly eclipsing, if they were all proved true, even Watergate, the nonpareil scandal of scandals.
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But none of the investigations has carried the authority or import of Mr. Mueller’s, in part because of his longstanding reputation in both parties as a straight shooter and in part because of the investigatory tools at his disposal. The assessment by Mr. Mueller, a lifelong Republican, decorated Vietnam War hero and former F.B.I. director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, could go far, particularly with Republicans who may doubt other investigators.
So at last some questions should be answered or at least addressed: Is there more to the story of Russia’s involvement in the election than is already publicly known? Did the Trump campaign cross lines that others have not before? Has the president used his power to improperly impede investigators? Or have Democrats assumed too much in their zeal to bring Mr. Trump down? Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up? Can there be conclusions that are widely accepted in such a polarized era?
Some of the answers may start to become clear as soon as this weekend when Attorney General William P. Barr briefs congressional leaders on its principal conclusions. He will then have to decide whether to publicly release the report and, if so, how much.
That will not be the end of the story, though, because Congress, at least the Democrat-controlled House, made clear on Friday that it will insist on seeing most everything. That could lead to a showdown between executive and legislative branches if Mr. Barr seeks to withhold parts of the report, one that potentially could be resolved by the third branch, the judiciary, in a constitutional showdown.
No report has been as anticipated in Washington since September 1998, when the independent counsel Ken Starr delivered to Congress the results of his investigation concluding that President Bill Clinton had committed impeachable offenses, with boxes of evidence transported to Capitol Hill in a pair of white vans trailed by news cameras as if they were O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco.
Mr. Starr, in his case, was obligated by the law creating his office to report directly to Congress, which then voted on a bipartisan basis to release his report sight unseen, much to the chagrin of many lawmakers once they saw its explicit description of the sexual encounters between Mr. Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky that formed the basis for perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Mr. Mueller, by contrast, operated under a different legal basis, reporting to the attorney general. But the question of what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as laid out in the Constitution for impeachment, remains exclusively the province of the House, now as then in the hands of the president’s political opposition.
Taking a lesson in part from the Clinton impeachment effort, which demonstrated that impeachment succeeds in ending a presidency only if it is bipartisan, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she does not favor impeaching Mr. Trump because it would be divisive for the country, which she declared is “just not worth it.”
In saying that any impeachment should be “so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan,” she was tacitly recognizing that while the Democratic House might vote for articles of impeachment, it would take at least 20 Republican senators to break with the president to muster the two-thirds vote required to remove him from office, which at the moment appears implausible.
The real question, then, becomes whether Mr. Mueller has any evidence that is so damning, so definitive and so powerful that it changes that dynamic.