President Donald Trump’s campaign did not collude with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, Attorney General William Barr announced Sunday after reviewing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Barr also said, in a letter to Congress summarizing the special counsel’s 22-month probe, that Mueller’s evidence could not prove that Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation.
The White House and Republicans immediately characterized Mueller’s findings as an unalloyed victory for the president. Trump told reporters Sunday evening as he was leaving Mar-a-Lago to return to the White House that the report proved no collusion, claiming without evidence that Mueller’s investigation was “an illegal takedown that failed.” But the special counsel report — at least according to Barr’s summary — did not go so far as to exonerate the president.
Barr noted that Mueller had referred “several matters” to other offices for investigation, a sign that scrutiny may not be over simply because the special counsel probe has come to an end. By neglecting to exonerate Trump, Mueller left room for House Democrats to continue their own investigations.
Here are some key takeaways from Mueller’s findings.
Trump has always maintained that his 2016 campaign did not collude with Russia to interfere with the presidential election. Mueller appears to have validated the president’s view: The special counsel found that no Trump campaign officials or associates “conspired or coordinated” with Russian attempts to meddle in the election.
That finding is a major victory for Trump. The collusion allegations appeared to be deeply personal to Trump, who made clear that he viewed them as questioning the legitimacy of his victory.
Now, that cloud has largely been lifted. Critics may still contend that the Trump campaign acted improperly, pointing to events like the now infamous 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between campaign officials and a Russian who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
But Mueller was unable to prove that the Trump campaign knowingly broke the law with the goal of conspiring with Russia — something that is crucial in criminal investigations.
Obstruction of justice?
While Mueller’s findings on collusion were fairly straight forward, he left a lot of gray area in his conclusions on whether Trump tried to obstruct the investigation — considered by many to be an impeachable offense. The special counsel also declined to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement, instead laying out evidence on both sides of the question. Ultimately, Mueller concluded, according to the summary, that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Barr said that Mueller presented the facts, and left it up to him to determine if Trump’s “actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.” To some it may seem that Mueller kicked the can down the road. But to others, Mueller merely fulfilled the special counsel mandate to conduct a thorough investigation and let the Department of Justice make the final decisions about what to do with the findings.
Barr did not waste time announcing his own view. In his summary letter, he said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that Mueller’s facts were not sufficient enough to prove obstruction.
Though Barr moved swiftly to end the debate, Mueller’s findings on obstruction were arguably the most critical part of the report, and the evidence the special counsel laid out in his report could give Democrats a path to continue their own investigations.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted Sunday that he found discrepancies within the report, and intended to call Barr to testify before the committee soon.
In his summary, Barr acknowledged there was intense interest in the report, and that he would try to make as much of it public as possible. But anyone who hopes the full report will be released anytime soon will be disappointed.
Barr said the report contained grand jury material that cannot be released, in accordance with section 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. That material typically remains sealed unless a judge orders it to be made public. While Democrats could take legal action to make that happen, it’s not a guarantee, and it’s unclear how long it would take for that legal process to play out.
In the meantime, Barr said he would work quickly to identify the 6e sections of the report, and try to release the parts of the report that aren’t covered by other Department of Justice restrictions.
Until then, the political battle over the special counsel investigation will remain alive. Before Barr’s letter to Congress was released, Nadler told CNN’s State of the Union that he was willing to go to the Supreme Court to get the full Mueller report. Several Democrats — including prominent 2020 candidates — also continued to call for its complete release. As with Barr’s decision on the potential obstruction charges, the next move is now up to Democrats, who will have to determine how badly they want to see the full report — and the best strategy to get it.
What happens now?
Trump’s potential legal trouble from the special counsel investigation appears to have diminished, particularly around the issue of collusion. The prospect of a swift move to impeachment by the House — which some Democrats viewed as a possibility, if Mueller’s report had concluded that Trump clearly obstructed justice — also seems far less likely now.
For supporters who believed Trump’s claims that the investigation was a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” Mueller’s findings proved Trump’s innocence. For Trump’s opponents, Mueller’s conclusion lacked a smoking gun, but left enough wiggle room to warrant further investigation by Congress.
But Trump will still face legal challenges going forward. House Democrats have launched numerous investigations into his presidency and business empire, and those will continue. Federal prosecutors in New York are still investigating Trump’s business practices and donations to his inauguration committee. Barr noted in his summary that in the course of Mueller’s investigation the special counsel had referred some materials to other offices, which means there may be state or federal probes that have yet to become public.
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