For almost two years Democrats waited with apprehension and Republicans with dread for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conclude his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. When the day finally came, Attorney General William Barr received the report. Two days later, he summarized the conclusions in a four-page letter. Republicans were elated, Democrats were stunned, and the president was jubilant.
Barr wrote that Mueller found neither Trump nor members of his campaign had conspired with the Russians.
But the other charge, obstruction of justice, remained unresolved. Mueller wrote
while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him [emphasis mine].
Whereupon Barr took it upon himself, in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to go where the Mueller Report had not. He concluded that President Trump had not obstructed justice, despite Mueller’s refusal to exonerate him.
Why did Special Counsel Mueller decide not to decide? Prosecutors normally prosecute.
A Special Prosecutor is appointed when an important investigation demands that it be led by someone deemed to be completely independent and resistant to countervailing political winds. By not resolving the question of Trump’s obstruction of justice, Mueller obviated the purpose of having an apolitical Special Counsel. The final decision now falls to a Trump appointee, the Attorney General, or Congress, which is nothing if not political.
Barr is hardly unbiased. Before his nomination, he wrote an unsolicited memo that called Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation “fatally misconceived.” Barr wrote that, given the executive power inherent in the office, it is impossible for the president to obstruct justice. It was completely within Trump’s powers as head of the executive branch, Barr wrote, to ask FBI Director James Comey to go easy on then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and fire Comey for his suggestion that the President had acted inappropriately.
Barr believes that there cannot be obstruction without an underlying crime. Once Mueller cleared Trump of collusion, the underlying crime was gone, so ipso facto Trump could not be obstructing justice.
It was clear early on that members of the Trump campaign had meetings with Russian nationals and tried to hide and then deny those actions. The infamous June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower was one of these. It was attended by three senior members of the Trump campaign (Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort) and a Russian government lawyer. Trump Jr had written that he would love to receive opposition research on Hilary Clinton from the Russians. Trump and his aides concocted several stories to explain the meeting, but none of the lies was able to withstand the truth eventually uncovered by tireless journalists.
We also know that during the campaign the president was working on a lucrative business deal, the erection of a Trump Tower in Moscow. Was he compromised by his eagerness to do business with Putin? Was making lots of money the only motive for Trump’s deference to the Russians?
Did Mueller fail to draw a conclusion because it might have prejudiced ongoing investigations he had referred to other jurisdictions? Would a conclusion have contaminated the jury pool for a future grand jury?
The Democrats will have to choke on these questions and more until, if ever, the full report is released. House committees may carry on the multiple investigations they have begun. They may call Mueller to testify, despite Barr’s opposition.
But if the Dems are wise, they will concentrate on giving the voters what they want. Healthcare leads the list. Trump may have given Democrats a gift by proposing to completely repeal the ACA / Obamacare. Voters are much more interested in the bread-and-butter issues that affect them directly every day than they are in the political bickering in Washington.
If American democracy can withstand the Trumpian onslaughts, an accurate history of the Trump era will one day be written.