Timothy L. O’Brien: Trump can take a victory lap, but it’s a partial one
President Trump scored a significant political and legal victory on Sunday. Attorney General William Barr, in a brief summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election, said that Mueller has determined that Trump and his aides didn’t conspire or coordinate with Russia in that country’s efforts to sabotage the campaign.
Barr also said that Mueller hadn’t uncovered evidence that Trump obstructed justice and that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also determined that the Justice Depart wouldn’t file obstruction charges against Trump.
He pointed out that both men arrived at that decision apart from special “constitutional considerations” that would have been involved in trying to indict a sitting president.
Barr’s summary is outlined in a succinct four-page letter he sent to Congress late Sunday afternoon. Although the letter surely gives the president and his team reasons to celebrate, Barr also noted that Mueller hadn’t completely absolved them of wrongdoing.
“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Barr said, quoting language from Mueller’s report.
Trump, jubilant, took to Twitter on Sunday evening to celebrate. But afforded the opportunity to take a victory lap, he still couldn’t avoid misrepresenting what the Mueller report actually said. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” he tweeted.
Barr also observed that the president may have acted to obstruct justice, but to convict him of obstruction “the government would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person, acting with corrupt intent, engaged in obstructive conduct.” In other words, Barr and Mueller didn’t believe that they could prove, in an airtight fashion, that Trump intended to obstruct justice when, for example possibly, he fired his former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, in early 2017. (The fact that Rosenstein himself drafted a memo for Trump that the president used to justify his firing of Comey surely complicates how he might have assessed that event when reviewing the Mueller report.)
The letter would also suggest — though it doesn’t list any examples of some of the more well-known episodes that surfaced before and during Mueller’s probe — that, for example, meetings in Trump Tower in 2016 involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a group of Russians offering compromising information about Hillary Clinton amounted to collusion.
What Mueller made of the president’s apparent efforts to obfuscate about that meeting — or his dissembling about his company’s efforts to engineer a business deal in Moscow during his presidential bid — will have to wait for further disclosures from the report.
Barr said he intends to “release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations and Departmental policies.” How much of the report Barr will make public is already an issue — and perhaps the source of coming political and legal conflicts — with Democrats in Congress demanding that it be released in its entirety.
“There must be full transparency in what Special Counsel Mueller uncovered to not exonerate the President from wrongdoing,” Jerold Nadler, head of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Sunday. “DOJ owes the public more than just a brief synopsis and decision not to go any further in their work.”
In what should be considered a rebuke to Mueller’s critics who have, in various ways, accused him of being a Deep State operative engaged in what the president himself repeatedly referred to as a “witch hunt,” the report appears to be a partial vindication for a president who has struggled in the shadow of the investigation for most of his tenure.
“The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction. AG Barr and DAG Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction,” Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, tweeted on Sunday.
Like her boss, she also couldn’t avoid distorting what the Mueller report apparently said.
“The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States,” she observed, contradicting Mueller’s own assessment.
Still, if the report conforms to Barr’s description of it, then one of the president’s favorite talking points — “No collusion!” — now has the added strength of federal law enforcement’s endorsement.
Barr pointed out that Mueller’s nearly two-year probe involved 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, 2,800 subpoenas, about 500 search warrants, 50 authorizations of pen registers (a wiretap, essentially, that monitors telephone and digital communications), 13 requests for information from foreign governments and interviews with 500 witnesses (which, notably, did not include the president).
If Barr’s letter represents the opening round of a cage match between the Justice Department and Congress over the Mueller report, it’s certainly not the end of Trump and his family’s intersection with law enforcement and possible legal jeopardy. As many as 12 known investigations continue to target the president’s financial, business and political dealings, including those overseen by several congressional committees as well as federal and state law enforcement and regulatory officials.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times,the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”