The fact that the Mueller investigation ended so quickly after William Barr stepped into the role of attorney general made many suspect that it was more than coincidence—and according to the Washington Post, those suspicions were well founded. Mueller ended his report when Barr sat down, because there was a conflict between the two of them that meant any effort to go forward was pointless.
Mueller viewed the Department of Justice regulations regarding indicting a sitting executive seriously. He believed it meant he could not issue a formal indictment of Trump, “even if the charges remained sealed.” But more than that, Mueller believed he was not allowed to even accuse Trump of a crime, “even in secret internal documents.” As far as Mueller was concerned, there was no way for Trump to land an indictment, not even if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.
It was such a strict view of the regulation that it appeared to drive other members of his team, and other staffers at the Department of Justice to distraction. The whole existence of the special counsel position seemed to be predicated on the idea that it was removed from the normal constraints of the Justice Department rules and was empowered to make exactly that kind of accusation.
But that wasn’t how Mueller saw it. Instead, Mueller was so determined to not make a decision, that he wrote all his findings as simply that—findings. For Mueller, it wasn’t just his role that was constrained by precedent to avoid making these decisions, it was everyone at the Justice Department. That’s why Mueller wrote his report with frequent references to the power of Congress: he created it with the assumption that the evidence would go to Congress, where the Article I of the Constitution would enable decisions that couldn’t be made by anyone within the executive branch.
William Barr did not agree. In fact, Barr didn’t agree to the point that he found Mueller’s positions astounding. As in astoundingly naive. Barr had already made it clear that he was perfectly comfortable making decisions about Trump’s guilt—and he didn’t even need the facts to make them.
With Mueller determined to not make a decision, and Barr having already made his decision, there was no reason for the investigation to continue.
Despite Barr’s repeated insistence that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ruling on indicting an executive didn’t affect the outcome of the report, the report makes it clear that this ruling — and other concerns about constitutional roles — are all that stood between Trump and an orange jumpsuit. Mueller had all the evidence necessary to not just indict, but convict Trump of repeatedly lying to investigators, interfering with witnesses, suborning perjury, and instructing others to carry out obstruction.
On the conspiracy front, Mueller makes it clear that, far from being absolved, he was unable to collect necessary information in large part because Trump and members of his campaign lied, withheld evidence, refused to testify, or actively destroyed evidence. Far from cooperating, Trump and members of his team used their positions and their authority to make it impossible for all the evidence to be collected and examined.
The conflict between Mueller’s view that he could not so much as make an accusation of a crime, and Barr’s position that he could cheerfully forgive Trump for anything, even if it required outright lying about the findings of the investigation, made any further investigation pointless.
What Barr waved off as disagreements on “legal theory” during his pre-redacted report spin session, was simply that Mueller felt that no one at the DOJ was empowered to decide Trump’s guilt. Barr not only felt that he did have that authority, he had announced his decision even before sitting down for his Senate confirmation.
Indications are that had Mueller been appointed as an independent prosecutor under those expired regulations, he would have felt otherwise. But because the special counsel is a DOJ position reporting to the attorney general, he found it to be constrained by a tight interpretation of DOJ rules.
Mueller believed he had to follow the rules, even if that meant not making accusations about someone clearly engaged in criminal acts. Barr believed there were no rules.
That basic conflict meant that the moment Senate Republicans approved Barr’s nomination, the investigation was over — and its outcome pre-decided.