Ramesh Ponnuru: A lucid portrait of an untrustworthy presidency

President Donald Trump, reaches out to greet supporters on the tarmac upon his arrival at Palm Beach International Airport, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Trump traveled to Florida to spend the Easter weekend as his Mar-a-Lago estate. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Donald Trump was worried about the wrong thing.

Among the more colorful revelations of the Mueller report was Trump's reaction to hearing that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and matters arising from it.

"Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency," he said, and then cursed.

After criticizing Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, he returned to the theme: "Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won't be able to do anything."

That fear was a reasonable one: Independent counsels have hobbled presidencies. But it turned out not to be true in Trump's case. The investigation didn't keep Trump from signing a set of major changes to the tax laws, re-orienting much of the federal judiciary, withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, or taking many other consequential actions.

Where he suffered legislative defeats, as he did over Obamacare, the investigation had nothing to do with it. It's not even clear that it did much to hurt Trump in the polls.

At most, the investigation kept Trump from making U.S. policy friendlier toward Russia - but he faced political constraints on that issue before a special counsel was appointed, and he has in any case pursued other policies that would have limited any rapprochement.

At the same time, the report illustrates three features of this presidency that have undermined Trump's effectiveness.

The first is that this presidency is marinated in lies. Some top Trump aides, such as former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have been charged with lying to investigators. But the report details many instances of deceit by others who have faced no charges.

K. T. McFarland, then the deputy national security adviser, lied to a Washington Post columnist, denying that Flynn and the Russian ambassador had discussed sanctions when they had. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders lied (a "slip of the tongue," she told Mueller) when she said in a news conference that "countless members of the FBI" did not support James Comey, and made a similar remark ("in the heat of the moment") on another occasion.

Trump himself lied about asking Comey for loyalty. The president and his aides engaged in bumbling dishonesty about his reasons for firing Comey. Trump was dishonest, too, about a meeting in July 2016 in which top members of his campaign had sought helpful information from Russia. He told White House counsel Don McGahn to lie about Trump's earlier command that McGahn fire Mueller.

Second, Trump regularly ignores good advice. McGahn told Trump not to call Comey directly, and afterward the president did it twice anyway. Stephen Bannon told Trump that his claims that Mueller had conflicts of interest that should keep him from investigating the president were "ridiculous," but Trump kept repeating it.

Third, Trump is surrounded by people who feel free to disregard his words. Chris Christie, even though he wanted an administration position, refused Trump's suggestion that he call Comey on his behalf. McGahn refused to fire Mueller. Corey Lewandowski, by that time an outside adviser to Trump, ignored a request even to pass along a message to Sessions that Mueller's investigation should be curtailed. Lewandowski tried to get White House official Rick Dearborn to do it, and he balked, too.

Public discussion of the Mueller report is, justifiably, focused on its legal conclusions. Mueller reached no judgment on whether Trump's conduct amounted to obstruction of justice and found insufficient evidence that his aides had criminally conspired with the Russian government.

But the report is also an episodic portrait of the administration, and what it shows is a president who is untrustworthy, who has untrustworthy advisers, and whose advisers do not respect him. Mueller has not destroyed Trump’s presidency, as Trump feared. But he has shone a light on what’s weakening it.

Ramesh Ponnuru | Bloomberg News