Special counsel Robert Mueller has determined that President Donald Trump’s campaign did not collude with the Russian government’s efforts to tip the 2016 election.
Mr. Mueller, however, reached no determination on whether the President obstructed justice in attempting to interfere in the collusion investigation, leaving it to Attorney-General William Barr to state that Mr. Trump had not.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mr. Mueller wrote of obstruction, according to Mr. Barr in a four-page summary letter to Congress released Sunday.
The first revelations from Mr. Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation finally answer a key question of the 2016 campaign: Whether Mr. Trump and his inner circle were in on a Kremlin plot to help Mr. Trump win. They also remove immediate legal jeopardy for the President, and undercut the chance of impeachment.
But they set up a bruising political and, potentially, legal battle between congressional Democrats and the administration over the release of Mr. Mueller’s full report.
Mr. Trump immediately declared victory, and his 2020 re-election campaign used the conclusion of the investigation to send a text message to supporters soliciting donations.
“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction. None whatsoever,” Mr. Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One in Florida Sunday evening to head back to Washington. “This was an illegal takedown that failed.”
Mr. Barr’s summary did not include any of the evidence Mr. Mueller examined, leaving it unclear whether the special counsel discovered further communications between the Trump campaign and purported Kremlin intermediaries.
On the issue of collusion, according to Mr. Barr, Mr. Mueller wrote, “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Congress, however, will want to see exactly what Mr. Mueller uncovered on potential obstruction of justice, rather than taking the word of Mr. Barr – who was appointed by the President – that it does not constitute a crime. Mr. Mueller, Mr. Barr said, opted to simply lay out the evidence for and against an obstruction charge without saying whether one was warranted.
Democratic leaders swiftly accused Mr. Barr of bias in favour of the President. In a previous memo, he argued that Mr. Trump could not be charged with obstruction of justice for firing former FBI director James Comey over the Russia investigation because the President has the right to fire the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Attorney-General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. "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.”
In his letter, Mr. Barr suggested that he felt Mr. Trump could not be charged with obstruction of justice because there was no underlying crime, such as collusion with Russia, that he was trying to cover up. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but Mr. Barr said this was not the reason he opted not to charge Mr. Trump.
He did not, however, explain exactly why Mr. Mueller opted not to decide the obstruction question.
“I think it’s a cop-out,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Columbia University. “It was clearly within his mandate. I don’t understand why he would have done that.”
Mr. Barr said he might release more of the report, but said he still had to sort out whether doing so would violate rules against releasing information presented to a grand jury, or whether any of the report’s findings were part of other continuing proceedings.
“My goal and intent is to release as much of the special counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulation and Departmental policies,” he wrote.
Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House judiciary committee, said that if Mr. Barr did not release the report, he was prepared to subpoena Mr. Mueller or others to get answers on its contents. He said he would also be willing to launch a legal challenge if necessary.
“We have the responsibility of protecting the rule of law … so that our democratic institutions are not greatly damaged by this President,” Mr. Nadler said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Besides the obstruction question, congressional committees are pursuing several other investigations into Mr. Trump, with a particular focus on his business dealings and taxes. Mr. Mueller also handed off non-Russia-related information to other prosecutors, including on financial transactions involving the committee that planned Mr. Trump’s inauguration festivities, meaning legal troubles for the President and his associates may not be over yet.
Mr. Mueller was appointed in May, 2017, after Mr. Trump fired the FBI director. During the investigation, the special counsel has charged 34 people, releasing some details of his findings in those court proceedings.
At the heart of the investigation was a Russian campaign to tip the 2016 election to Mr. Trump by hacking and releasing embarrassing Democratic Party e-mails, and by deploying an army of trolls to push pro-Trump memes on Facebook and organize rallies for the candidate. Mr. Mueller also detailed several contacts between people connected to Mr. Trump and a host of Russians, including Mr. Putin’s spokesman, purported Kremlin intermediaries and a former Russian spy.
Even as the political firestorm raged anew Sunday, the elusive Mr. Mueller was spotted in public – a rare occurrence during the past two years: He was photographed by The Associated Press leaving a church service in downtown Washington with his wife, ambling past the White House to his car.