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Of the few direct quotes that made it into Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 summary of the Mueller report, one stood out in its conclusiveness: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Barr made that declaration three weeks before anyone outside of the investigation — or Barr’s office — had seen the Mueller report. But as the full report finally showed, the gulf between what Mueller said, and how Barr interpreted it, compounded by Barr’s defense of President Trump at a press conference Thursday, is triggering rage among Democrats.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and recent entry into the mix for 2020, went so far as to call for Barr to resign.
Take Barr’s direct citation of Mueller. The first page of the report’s introduction makes clear that Barr cut crucial context around that much-discussed quotation — including the first half of the sentence.
Here’s the full context from Mueller’s report: “The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The omission speaks to broader discrepancies between the two men’s statements on the investigation. Whereas Barr’s 4-page summary provided political cover for a president eager to put collusion charges to bed, Mueller’s 448-page report out Thursday details the Trump campaign’s repeated contacts with Russian actors and suggests that the attorney general understated evidence of obstruction of justice. It paints a far darker picture of the president and his confidants than Barr initially let on.
Can a sitting president be indicted?
Much of the tension revolves around why Mueller decided against coming to a judgment for or against obstruction charges. Barr’s letter suggested that the special counsel did so because of contradictory evidence, leaving the decision to him and Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It seemed to avoid brushing against a Watergate-era position by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
In a news conference Thursday morning, when a reporter asked whether the policy had come into play, Barr recounted a meeting where Mueller responded no.
“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion,” Barr said. “And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position.”
But Mueller’s report seems to contradict this point. As the special counsel introduces findings on potential obstruction of justice, he details how the Justice Department policy constrained his decision-making. A current or future prosecution of a president, Mueller added, would raise major legal and political questions.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller continues. “The evidence we obtained about the President 's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The campaign was ready to play ball
Trump and his allies cheered Barr’s letter for its clarity in refuting collusion-related charges. As the attorney general wrote last month, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
What it didn’t include was any reference to Mueller’s findings that Trump and his inner circle were willing to work with foreign actors, be it WikiLeaks or Russian agents. Longtime confidant Roger Stone communicated repeatedly with the former organization, and Trump’s campaign apparently went so far as to plan its messaging strategy around document dumps by the media organization.
Aides including Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn likewise maintained contact with Russian officials for Trump’s political or financial gain. And Donald Trump Jr. helped organize the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 to discuss damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Taken together, Mueller’s findings suggest Trump’s family and aides were much more receptive to foreign aid than Barr suggested.
“In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government,” Mueller writes. “Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away.”
Potential obstruction in plain view
Barr used a portion of his 22-minute news conference Thursday to criticize “relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability.”
“Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims,” Barr said. “And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.”
He made no mention of the fact that Trump declined to sit for an interview with Mueller, or the fact that the president has castigated the special counsel as part of a “witch hunt” for the better part of two years.
“[M]any of the President's acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in public view,” Mueller writes. “That circumstance is unusual, but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws. If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system's integrity is the same.”
Cover image: U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference on the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report at the Department of Justice April 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)