On Friday afternoon, Attorney General William Barr announced that he was in receipt of the concluding document from special counsel Robert Mueller. After 40 hours of tense silence and speculation, Barr delivered a letter to Congress on Sunday providing a “summary” of the contents of Mueller’s statement. In his letter, Barr states that Mueller concluded that, while Russia deliberately interfered in the 2016 election both by planting false stories in social media and by hacking into computers to “obtain” emails, the special counsel “did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated” with the Russian effort. On the topic of obstruction, the letter states that Mueller did something unusual: He laid out a number of actions that possibly represented obstruction, but did not provide indictments. As a result, Barr, in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, concluded that the “evidence was not sufficient to conclude the President committed an obstruction of justice offense.”
All indications are that there are to be no more indictments, including no sealed indictments, resulting from the special counsel investigation. No further actions will result.
As might be expected, the contents of the letter have resulted in both wild celebration—and wild accusations—from the Right, with Trump claiming “total exoneration,” and multiple Republicans in both the Senate and the House accusing both Democrats and the media of “lying” and leading the public on a two-year, what else, “witch hunt.” On the other hand, it’s immediately notable that Barr’s fewer-than-four-page letter contains not a single full sentence from the document produced by Mueller, and one of the few fragments that is provided states that, “while this report does not conclude the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”—in stark disagreement with Trump’s claims.
- The letter from Barr provides a list of hefty statistics about the number of documents examined, subpoenas deployed, and witnesses questioned in the course of the investigation, all of which only makes Barr’s highly abbreviated summary even less satisfying.
- On the issue of obstruction, Barr’s letter does not say that Mueller left it to the attorney general to determine charges, no matter how it’s being framed in reports. It says only that Mueller “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement,” and then Barr and Rosenstein “determined that the evidence developed … was not sufficient to establish” a crime. That is a very different thing.
- The description of “collusion” in the letter is very tightly prescribed, leaving off the table entire areas of possible cooperation with Russia, and describing the situation in very black-and-white terms that may not reflect the findings from the special counsel.
It’s immediately obviously that the letter is skipping over huge areas of the document from the special counsel. Whether these items are being abbreviated or openly spun is unclear. It’s difficult to see how the more than 100 known contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russian operatives can be quickly dismissed as nothing. And when it comes to the obstruction charge, it’s clear that the way this is being reported is far from the way it arrived on Barr’s desk.
There seems to be no indication, not even in Barr’s letter, that Mueller intended the question of obstruction to be decided by Barr and Rosenstein, and certainly not decided in a single day. Forgetting for a moment the firing of FBI Director James Comey or any other official, forgetting any other incident, the single instance of Donald Trump dictating from Air Force One a letter deliberately designed to mislead both investigators and the public when it came to the purpose of the meeting of his campaign staff and Russian operatives at Trump Tower parallels exactly actions that earned both Paul Manafort and Roger Stone charges of witness tampering or obstruction.
The letter states that, in making their decision, Barr and Rosenstein did not act on the basis of DOJ rules that a sitting executive could not be indicted. However, it does not say this did not figure into why Mueller made the choice not to file charges. As it stands, there is every reason to believe that, except for Trump’s unique position, Mueller would have brought charges, but Barr refused to bring those charges.
The letter from Barr will undoubtedly remain the defining document unless the document from Mueller is released—but Barr’s letter raises more questions than it answers. It’s very tightly written, to avoid giving any of the evidence that was obtained by the special counsel and just draw a line around the lack of resulting charges.
On the topic of obstruction, it seems clear that Mueller produced information which, in one of the few glimpses into the actual report, “does not exonerate” Trump. Barr exonerated Trump on obstruction. Which was exactly what he had promised to do both in the letter he wrote before being named attorney general and in his Senate confirmation hearings. Barr made it clear he didn’t believe it possible for Trump to commit obstruction. Now he has confirmed his own theory by simply making it true.
But while that decision is getting most of the attention on Monday morning, the way the letter presents the idea of conspiracy with Russia seems equally strange. The Russians did not “obtain” emails; they stole them. And Trump and his campaign knew that. And they welcomed it. And they welcomed the Russians. And on more than one occasion, they shared information with the Russians that could assist them in using their stolen information to maximum effect. To dismiss that as not rising to even the level of “cooperation” seems not just odd, but impossible.
Sources, including Los Angeles Times and Wired reporter Virginia Heffernan, have indicated that the report contains information “far more damaging” to Trump. But so long as Barr is willing to stand between the report and the public, and between Trump and any accusations, it’s not clear how much that matters.