For President Donald Trump, Sunday, March 24, was his best day in office. For his opponents, it was their worst day since his election. And for everyone else? Call it a small victory for American democracy. Whether Mr. Trump is to be a one-term president or a two-term president has been remanded to what the U.S. Constitution calls “We the People” – the voters.
The 2020 election may end with Mr. Trump bounced from office. But he’s unlikely to leave before then. And he’s even more unlikely to leave in handcuffs, under indictment or impeached.
On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his final report into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The document is not yet public but, on Sunday, Attorney-General William Barr sent a letter to Congress summarizing its findings. Mr. Trump and his defenders immediately proclaimed that he’d been cleared – “a total and complete exoneration,” tweeted press secretary Sarah Sanders.
That’s an exaggeration and distortion of the special counsel’s findings. Even so, Mr. Trump has reason to celebrate. It comes down to this one line from Mr. Barr’s letter, quoting Mr. Mueller’s report:
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”
According to Mr. Mueller, Mr. Trump is not a Russian agent, nor was he a co-conspirator in Russian attempts to subvert the election. That’s a legal exoneration, at least on one accusation. But is it a political exoneration? No.
As Richard Nixon once said, “I am not a crook.” Strictly speaking, he was correct. But the bar for assessing presidential success, and fitness for office and re-election, is somewhere higher than the absence of a criminal indictment.
The Mueller investigation was created to look into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and allegations the Trump campaign joined those efforts. Mr. Trump has spent two years arguing there was “no collusion," and Mr. Mueller, to the consternation of Mr. Trump’s critics, apparently agrees.
Yes, Russian agents and actors tried to undermine the Hillary Clinton campaign. Yes, the Russian Internet Research Agency conducted disinformation campaigns on social media. Yes, Moscow sponsored hacking operations, including breaking into computers and email accounts belonging to the Clinton team and the Democratic Party.
And yes, the Russians offered assistance to Mr. Trump’s campaign, and meetings and conversations took place between members of Mr. Trump’s entourage and those malicious Russian actors.
Nevertheless, according to Mr. Barr’s summary of Mr. Mueller’s report, “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” Mr. Trump and his associates did not conspire or coordinate with those Russians. As a result, Mr. Mueller writes that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
However, the second part of Mr. Mueller’s report, covering allegations of obstruction of justice, is less favourable. He examined the question of whether or not Mr. Trump had broken the law by attempting to interfere with investigations, and concluded there is evidence to make a case for it.
But, rather than recommend charges against Mr. Trump, or declare him cleared, the Mueller report – at least according to Mr. Barr’s summary of it – punts. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mr. Barr says, quoting Mr. Mueller, “it also does not exonerate him.”
It left the decision to charge Mr. Trump, or not, up to Mr. Barr. The President’s hand-picked attorney-general has unsurprisingly decided to declare his boss out of criminal danger on the obstruction allegation.
So, what’s left of the Mueller investigation? Congress has to hear from Mr. Mueller. He may yet disagree with Mr. Barr’s characterization of his findings. More importantly, the report needs to be made public, and soon. Mr. Trump has said he supports that. He may favour it because he knows that, while it doesn’t entirely exonerate him, it exonerates him enough, and muddies the legal waters sufficiently.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, the case against President Donald Trump appears to have been removed from the court of law and returned to the highest court in the land: the court of public opinion.