All of the good news in the Mueller report

Mueller left at least one door open.
Mueller left at least one door open.
Image: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
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Don’t be fooled by the collective groan heard across the red, the white, and especially, the blue states of America.

Donald Trump is already setting up his 2020 run as a redemption campaign, declaring special counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt” to be a closed case that completely clears him. It’s not.

Mueller’s investigation is far from the last word on potential malfeasance by Trump’s 2016 campaign team or his administration. And Mueller left unresolved the biggest remaining criminal question about the president’s behavior while in office. That William Barr, the man Trump appointed US attorney general, has said his justice department won’t bring obstruction charges doesn’t stop Democrats in Congress from pursuing the question.

The Mueller report, as summarized by Barr, appears to be full of wonderful things for democracy:

1. Those meddling Russians had no American help

Mueller’s investigation charged 26 Russians and no Americans with scheming to swing the 2016 US presidential election in Trump’s favor.

The dissemination of disinformation on US social networks was a Russian play, impure and simple, Mueller told Barr. Ditto for the hacking that spread damaging information about Hillary Clinton, her closest aides, and the Democratic Party. No more indictments are coming, domestically or internationally, Barr said.

We still don’t have evidence, as David Frum writes for the Atlantic, of why Vladimir Putin felt the need to gamble so heavily against what seemed to be the surer bet on  Clinton’s victory.


Trump is not charged as a colluder

It would have been awful for the world to learn that the president, members of his family, or anyone connected with his 2016 campaign was found to be criminally tied to Russia’s well-documented meddling in the election that put Trump in the White House. As Barr put it:

A primary consideration for the Special Counsel’s investigation was whether any Americans— including individuals associated with the Trump campaign—joined the Russian conspiracies to influence the election, which would be a federal crime. The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

This is good. It’s not even so bad that the debate over Trump’s actions will now center on what voters have seen and heard him say on the Russia probe, rather than relying on partisan interpretation of speculation about what Mueller may have had on him.

3. Also: Good job, Team Trump!

Democrats are not the only Americans who can resist, according to Barr’s summary:

As noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

Now that’s not to say Mueller did not set a high bar, as the attorney general wrote in a footnote:

In assessing potential conspiracy charges, the Special Counsel also considered whether members of the Trump campaign “coordinated” with Russian election interference activities. The Special Counsel defined “coordination” as an “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

Americans may not apply the same standard to what Mueller’s investigation found, one reason Democrats are eager to see the full report. “There’s a margin of error in predicting the political fallout from the report,”  as Nate Silver puts it at FiveThirtyEight: “[M]aybe Mueller was more ambivalent about collusion, too, than Barr’s letter implies.”

4. The one door Mueller left open

In November 1973, with the Watergate investigation closing in around him in the final full year of his presidency, Richard Nixon told America: “I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”

The question remains important today. So you do you, DJT!

Except not quite.

5. Another branch of government is standing by

Mueller told Barr that his investigation was inconclusive on whether Trump attempted to or had obstructed justice (paywall) in the Russia probe:

…for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as “difficult issues” of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Barr went on to say that “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense. Our determination was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”

Yes, Barr has the final word on the justice department seeking obstruction charges against Trump. He’s not, however, the ultimate authority on whether Trump will face any sanction for, as Barr put it, “a number of actions by the President—most of which have been the subject of public reporting—that the Special Counsel investigated as potentially raising obstruction-of-justice concerns.”

Intrigued by the ambiguity voiced by Mueller, Democrats—including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—will likely have plenty more to say about obstruction and other investigative threads as they press for release of all of Mueller’s files (paywall):