The main result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference was unequivocal: U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign did not collude with Moscow’s plan to help him win.
Nearly everything beyond that remains up in the air.
For one, Mr. Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the President had obstructed justice by trying to meddle with the investigation, allowing Attorney-General William Barr to decide there was no grounds to prosecute Mr. Trump.
For another, neither the evidence Mr. Mueller considered nor the information he uncovered nor the legal reasoning he employed has been made public, leaving open questions of whether he discovered other unethical behaviour that fell short of breaking the law.
A day after Mr. Barr wrote a letter to Congress summarizing the investigation, Mr. Trump was buoyed. With the threat of impeachment receding, the President said he would somehow take revenge on unspecified “evil” political enemies. And his re-election campaign sent a memo to television stations suggesting they no longer book any politicians who accused the President of collusion over the past two years.
Democrats, meanwhile, face a difficult balancing act. They will use all possible means to get Mr. Barr to release Mr. Mueller’s full report and pursue congressional investigations into several aspects of Mr. Trump’s presidency. But they must also find a way to spotlight policy issues that are more important to voters than Mr. Mueller’s investigation, but have been consistently overshadowed by the Russian drama.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi tacitly acknowledged this reality even before Mr. Mueller finished his investigation. Earlier this month, she told the Washington Post that she did not want to impeach the President.
“Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “And he’s just not worth it.”
Polling ahead of the midterm elections last year found issues such as health care, the economy and immigration mattered far more to voters than Mr. Mueller’s probe. The Democrats won control of the House of Representatives largely by promising to protect popular health care laws from Republican attempts to roll them back, and not by pushing accusations of Russian collusion.
The Democrats’ attempts to set Congress’s policy agenda – including by cutting prescription drug prices, improving health care and cracking down on shadowy political donations – have often missed out on media attention because of the Russia matter.
Mr. Mueller’s ruling on collusion could, however, clarify the situation by taking the most obvious cause for impeachment off the table. This could allow the Democrats to focus on policy and manoeuvring for the 2020 election, while pursuing ethics investigations of Mr. Trump as a secondary priority.
“It’s probably not a bad place for Nancy Pelosi to be,” said Julie Novkov, a political scientist at the State University of New York. “She’s got people in her caucus who keep this in the headlines, while she also spotlights more of that forward-thinking agenda in the House.”
For now, however, the Democrats are focused on getting as much information about Mr. Mueller’s findings as possible.
“The Mueller report needs to be made public, the underlying investigative materials should be handed over to Congress, and Barr must testify,” tweeted Senator Kamala Harris, a candidate for her party’s 2020 presidential nomination. “A short letter from Trump’s hand-picked Attorney-General is not sufficient.”
Mr. Barr has said he needs time to sort out how much of the report he can legally release. Democratic leaders have said that they will issue subpoenas to him and Mr. Mueller, and possibly take the administration to court if it does not give up the goods.
Among other things, Mr. Mueller’s full findings should settle outstanding questions about contacts between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign and people with ties to the Russian government. His former campaign manager, for instance, allegedly shared polling with a man connected to a Kremlin spy agency. The President’s son met with a woman who claimed to have damaging information on the Democrats that came straight from the Russian government. And Mr. Trump’s former lawyer contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office for help building a hotel in Moscow during the campaign.
What’s more, several of Mr. Trump’s campaign members pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators. And Mr. Mueller had wide latitude to investigate any potential wrongdoing he found, even if it was not related to Russia.
“Why all the lying and why all the covering up? There may be some other shady things going on,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor.
Mr. Barr’s decision not to press obstruction of justice charges against Mr. Trump will also come in for intense scrutiny. Democrats will want to judge Mr. Mueller’s evidence for themselves, and could yet move forward with impeachment proceedings depending on what the special counsel found.
The Republicans, for their part, seemed to be divided between wanting to use Mr. Mueller’s finding on collusion to put the Russian matter behind them, and wanting to keep the issue alive to convince their base the investigation had been a nefarious plot.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, moved quickly to shut down a Democratic motion calling for the release of the report. Senator Lindsey Graham called on Mr. Barr to appoint another special counsel to investigate the origins of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
Mr. Trump, for his part, seemed unsure how to react. At first on Monday, he said the investigation was “100 per cent the way it should have been.” Then, he pivoted to vague threats of a clampdown on unnamed opponents.
“There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things. I would say treasonous things against our country,” he said. “We can never let this happen to another President again.”