Twenty-two months and 448 pages later, a redacted version of the long-awaited Mueller report was released to the public on Thursday. The report, comprising two volumes and four appendices, documents the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged conspiracy or coordination between President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign and Russian officials, alongside allegations of obstruction of justice. The completion of this publication is no small feat—it’s the conclusion of a highly secretive investigation that included nineteen lawyers, forty investigators who interviewed myriad witnesses, five hundred search warrants, and 2,800 subpoenas.
Days earlier, Attorney General William Barr released his four-page summary of the report in a March 24 letter to Congress, writing, “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 US presidential election.”
However, the full report paints a far more nuanced and complex picture of the Trump presidency.
While the investigation’s primary focus was to address lingering questions about collusion and obstruction of justice, the report does much more. Within its dense pages unfolds a tale of presidential incompetence, an exasperated F-bomb, and the unlikely heroism of aides and advisors.
First, the report painstakingly corrects public misconceptions about the word “collusion.” The report does not charge Trump with collusion—but only because Mueller did not address the question of collusion. “Collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law,” the report explains. “For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.”
In the first volume of the report, Mueller turns to questions of conspiracy law. He explicitly states that there was not sufficient evidence to charge the president, although it does assert that the Trump campaign “expected” assistance from Russia, believing Russia would be beneficial in helping to secure a win over Secretary Hillary Clinton. Mueller writes, “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
On the issue of obstruction, the verdict is much less clear. It’s a far cry from Trump’s March 24 tweet claiming “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
To put it simply, Mueller and his team decided not to render a “traditional” judgment. However, he does not exonerate the president—far from it. The report states, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Mueller goes on to write that “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Perhaps, the report suggests, it was the president’s own incompetence and the refusal of his aides and advisors to follow his requests that saved him. Mueller details a troubled president who made myriad attempts to thwart the investigation, “from efforts to remove the Special Counsel and to reverse the effect of the Attorney General’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony.”
Yet, “The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mueller concludes.
The most damning example of this is an anecdote about the president directing White House Counsel Don McGahn to publicly lie and claim that the stories about Trump’s desire to fire Mueller were false. In reality, on June 17, 2017, Trump dialed McGahn at home and directed him to order Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General and overseer of the Mueller probe, to fire Mueller over “conflicts of interest.” However, McGahn refused, replying he would “rather resign than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.” This is a reference to the 1973 Watergate Scandal, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused President Nixon’s order to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, resigning instead.
The report also details an interesting anecdote about Trump’s state of mind and his immediate reaction upon learning of the appointment of the special counsel. In Volume 2 of the document, Mueller writes, “When [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’”
The impact of this report remains yet to be seen. Mueller insinuates that the question of whether Trump obstructed justice should be decided in Congress. He writes, “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
Indeed, Mueller repeatedly hints at the possibility of future congressional action to address Trump’s potentially obstructive behavior. However, it appears, at the moment, unlikely that such action will result in impeachment—at least in the immediate future. While 2020 presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren called for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump Friday afternoon, citing the Special Counsel’s report, most other high-profile Democrats and candidates remain mum on the issue. After the release of the report, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN, “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.” Asked recently while traveling abroad in Belfast, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declined to comment.
One individual who has come under fire in the immediate aftermath of the report’s release is Barr. Democrats accuse him of mischaracterizing the special counsel’s findings through his initial letter to the public, as well as through his decision to hold a press conference before releasing the actual document, which lawmakers maintain allowed Barr to spin the report in the president’s favor. He is set to testify next Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and will answer a bevy of questions from lawmakers about his handling of the Mueller report.
At the moment, it appears somewhat unlikely that this report will significantly influence the 2020 election. Fundamentally, Mueller reported two findings, both of which appear favorable for the president: The Trump campaign did not conspire or collude with the Russian government in the 2016 presidential election, and the Department of Justice will not charge Trump with obstruction.
Furthermore, most people will not take the time to carefully read all 448 pages of the report—instead, they will learn of its findings through the news sources with political biases that they agree with. And their preconceived notions about the report and Trump’s culpability in this investigation will merely be reinforced.
This is not the end of the Russia investigation—not close. While White House aides continue to publicly claim victory and vindication for Trump, Democrats continue to work behind the scenes, although they are internally divided on the next best course of action. During a conference call with rank-and-file members of the House, Pelosi and the chairs of other major oversight committees did not commit to starting impeachment proceedings, instead telling members to continue aggressively investigating the president. However, as investigations continue and Democrats continue to process the extensive Mueller report, Trump appears to be in the clear, at least for now.
Most recently, Barr’s May 1 Senate testimony was a spectacle. But perhaps more notable was his refusal to sit before the House Judiciary Committee on May 2 over a format dispute, which would have allowed for additional rounds of questioning by both Democratic and Republican committee lawyers. Democrats signaled Friday that if Barr did not cooperate with a subpoena or release an unredacted version of the report, they may hold him in contempt of Congress—if his actions are deemed to obstruct, in this case, a congressional investigation.
The Mueller report also made fourteen referrals to law enforcement authorities of potential criminal activity outside the purview of the special counsel, twelve of which are sealed. How the Barr saga continues to unfold and what revelations are discovered will determine what happens next.
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