And Now the Mueller Backlash Begins

With Trump somewhat vindicated by the special counsel, chances of impeachment are dimming.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 16, 2013. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 16, 2013. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

It was there in black and white, delivered under blue skies on a Sunday afternoon: seeming vindication from the former FBI director whom Donald Trump at one point reportedly considered firing. The U.S. president did not collude with the Russians to get himself elected in 2016, said the letter sent to Congress by Attorney General William Barr.

The question of whether Trump obstructed justice to derail the probe into collusion allegations was somewhat more hedged in the letter Barr sent to key members of the Senate and House judiciary committees, summing up the long-awaited report delivered Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Barr wrote that Mueller “did not draw a conclusion—one way or the other—as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” Barr said that, according to Mueller, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The issue of obstruction of justice has hung on several Trump actions since the allegations of collusion first arose. These include the president’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 after Trump allegedly asked Comey to go easy on his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, about the latter’s lies to the FBI regarding his conversations with a Russian official.

But on the main issue that prompted the Mueller probe, Barr was unequivocal in saying there is no evidence that Trump or anyone associated with his presidential campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” …  “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

The bottom line is that in spite of lingering doubts about the president’s conduct there will be no prosecution—and far less chance of impeachment—on the chief allegations that have haunted Trump since his inauguration. And Trump, who has made “No collusion!” almost as much his mantra in the last two years as “Make America Great Again,” can now focus his considerable talent for retribution on his Democratic enemies as he bids for re-election. After 22 months and at least $25 million spent on an investigation that Trump has repeatedly called a “witch hunt,” and which yielded next to nothing on him personally, he now has a more credible case.

“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” Trump tweeted after the Barr letter was made public.

In a statement, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said: “Today marks the day that President Trump has been completely and fully vindicated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, exposing the Russia collusion conspiracy theory for the sham that it always was and catching Democrats in an elaborate web of lies and deceit. “

Even so, five key former associates of Trump, including Flynn, his former national security advisor; his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort; and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, have pleaded guilty to various charges in the Mueller probe, including lying to the FBI or Congress about their contacts with Russians or their representations of Trump’s business interests in Russia.

Before the Mueller report came out, at least one national poll indicated that many voters agreed with Trump that the investigation was a witch hunt; Sunday’s revelations will no doubt provoke a further backlash. Thus perhaps the real question going into the 2020 election is how the Democrats will react. Even before the Mueller report summary came out, it was clear that they were divided and are likely to remain so. On March 11, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Washington Post that she opposed impeachment, saying Trump was “just not worth” the divisiveness that the country would suffer from that effort.

But some younger members of the House—which would decide whether to impeach—still haven’t given up hope, and newly empowered committee chairs, including Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, immediately indicated that they were far from satisfied with Barr’s letter and would insist on examining the full Mueller report. Nadler said he wanted to hear testimony from Barr and Mueller in hopes of firming up what the former FBI director really thought about the obstruction charges and whether the attorney general accurately reflected Mueller’s conclusions.

“In light of the very concerning discrepancies and final decision making at the Justice Department following the Special Counsel report, where Mueller did not exonerate the President, we will be calling Attorney General Barr in to testify before [the House Judiciary Committee] in the near future,” Nadler tweeted.

Some Democratic strategists pointed out that the emerging 2020 field has already been steering away from making the campaign all about Trump and his alleged transgressions against the law. “I think we should get the report and analyze what it actually says, given that there are and should be significant concerns about Barr’s impartiality,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress. But she argued that most successful Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, and the current declared presidential contenders, have not been hanging their campaigns on impeachment. “That consideration has always been one that is inside Washington. They’re out there talking about their plans for the future and not simply an indictment of Trump,” she said.

Nonetheless, several 2020 candidates on Sunday, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, called for the full Mueller report to be made public.

In a joint statement, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded the same thing, saying that Barr had demonstrated a “record of bias” against the Mueller probe and his letter “raises as many questions as it answers. The fact that Special Counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay.”

Trump is hardly in the clear, and it may yet prove that Stormy Daniels, the porn star whom Trump allegedly had paid to keep quiet about their tryst just before the 2016 election, ends up doing more damage to Trump than Mueller does. Following an FBI raid of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office in April 2018, prompted in part by an investigation into those hush payments, the Southern District of New York is looking into an array of issues connected with the president and his business, the Trump Organization. Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about efforts to construct a Trump tower in Moscow and told a congressional committee late last month that he acted in accordance with what he believed Trump’s wishes were.

During that testimony before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen said he believed that prosecutors were also looking into his communications with Trump and Trump’s representatives following the FBI raid of Cohen’s office, which could also raise suspicions of obstruction of justice. The Southern District of New York has not commented on those allegations.

According to Barr’s letter, the Mueller investigation concluded “that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election.”

But the special counsel “did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA in its efforts,” Barr wrote. He said the second effort “involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.” But here too, according to the attorney general, Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts.”

Even so, Democrats who have been waiting for Mueller to deliver his report believe too many questions remain unanswered. Some criticized Barr’s statement that Mueller’s “decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” Barr apparently concluded, after just a 48-hour review and without interviewing the president, “that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Nadler later tweeted: “Special Counsel Mueller worked for 22 months to determine the extent to which President Trump obstructed justice. Attorney General Barr took 2 days to tell the American people that while the President is not exonerated, there will be no action by DOJ.”

Barr added that the determination made by him and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was not influenced by “constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh