If Donald Trump didn't collude with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign or obstruct the special counsel's investigation that followed, it wasn't for a lack of trying.
That is perhaps that biggest takeaway from Robert Mueller's highly anticipated (if redacted) report, released on Thursday after Attorney General William Barr spun its conclusions as if he were Trump's personal lawyer.
On the collusion question, the nearly 450-page report details Russia's "sweeping and systematic" efforts to interfere with the campaign — and Team Trump's amateurish, right-up-to-the-edge dalliances with Russian operatives.
Trump, his son and his campaign had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks would dump Democratic campaign secrets stolen by Russians hackers. Campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Russian affiliates and leaked internal campaign polling data to a suspected Russian spy. Donald Trump Jr. eagerly agreed — "if it's what you say I love it" — to a Trump Tower meeting with Russians dangling dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Appearances notwithstanding, Mueller concluded that none of this rose to the level of criminal conspiracy, and for that the nation should be grateful because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.
On the obstruction of justice question, however, Mueller explored 10 different instances and pointedly stopped short of reaching a judgment: "While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
In fact, Trump was saved only because those around him refused to carry out his commands to kill or curb Mueller's investigation. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 and the special counsel was appointed, Trump panicked and told advisers it might be end of his presidency.
White House counsel Don McGahn, an unlikely hero in this tawdry tale, rebuffed efforts to remove Mueller, threatening to resign instead. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rejected pressure to "unrecuse" himself. Two other aides didn't relay to Sessions directives by Trump to rein in the inquiry. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stonewalled Trump's repeated demands to fire Sessions until the president gave up.
Beyond these actions, the report notes how Trump waged a bitter, relentless Twitter campaign against Mueller, his team and FBI investigators. Trump openly praised witnesses who refused to cooperate with investigation but publicly disparaged them when they didn't.
If lying to the press and public were a crime, Trump and some of his top aides would be facing hard time. Repeatedly, on everything from the purpose of the Trump Tower meeting to his pursuit of a real estate deal in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, Trump dissembled.
So why, if there was no underlying crime of conspiracy, did Trump try so hard to discredit the investigation? Mueller's report offers these plausible explanations: Trump was concerned that the investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election, and it could expose other potential criminal activity by him, his campaign, or his family.
In deciding not to find that Trump committed a crime, Mueller said his dilemma was two-fold. On the one hand, Trump's constitutional authority as president gives him great latitude of action, even actions that appear legally questionable. The same authority, however, affords the president a "unique and powerful means" of influencing subordinates, witnesses and official proceedings in ways that subvert justice.
Although Mueller will be endlessly second-guessed about his decisions to punt on obstruction and not try harder to get Trump to testify in person, on the whole he did his job thoroughly and professionally. Now it's up to the Congress or voters to do theirs.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
If you can't see this reader poll, please refresh your page.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Mueller investigation: If Donald Trump didn't break the law, he surely bent it