Updated: 12:00 pm ET
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump all but came out tap-dancing Sunday after his attorney general, William Barr, wiped away nearly two years of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with the stroke of a pen.
In a four-page letter to Congress, Barr wrote that Special Counsel Robert Mueller ultimately didn’t find that Trump colluded with Russia. He also put to bed possible charges of obstruction of justice, arguing that while Mueller did not make an official judgement on the matter, “the evidence” was not “sufficient” to charge Trump with such an offense.
But Barr's brief letter opened up many glaring questions about his own role in the process and has left Democrats in Congress and former prosecutors howling for answers.
“I have one overwhelming reaction” to Barr’s letter, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which would have responsibility for launching any impeachment proceeding against Trump, told VICE News. “I want to read the report.”
Now, as the House gears up to fight for the right to review Mueller’s full report, here are some of the biggest unanswered questions.
Why did Mueller decline to make a judgement about whether Trump was guilty of obstruction?
The Mueller report lays out arguments on both sides of the obstruction question, Barr wrote, but left it unresolved. Barr wrote that Mueller considered the “difficult issues” surrounding the question of whether the president’s “actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction” but ultimately kicked it upstairs.
But Mueller’s precise reasons for declining to reach a conclusion about obstruction, and his precise recommendation for how to handle the question, remain shrouded in mystery.
“I’m not satisfied with this summary. This leaves too many unanswered questions.”
Congress is keen to see Mueller’s full stack of evidence, in part because there’s a key difference between the crime of obstruction, and the potentially impeachable offense of obstruction of justice. The latter would have to be decided by Congress, rather than by the attorney general, Raskin pointed out.
“The Congress of the United States doesn’t engage in criminal prosecutions,” Raskin said. “We’re much less interested in the narrow question of statutory offenses than we are in the broader questions of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and corruption.”
Why didn’t Mueller talk to Trump?
Mueller never interviewed the president in person. Instead, Trump sent Mueller written answers but reportedly only about the question of potential conspiracy with Russians, rather than about obstruction of justice.
That gap has led some observers to question how investigators — or Barr — could reach conclusions about whether Trump intentionally obstructed justice.
“I’m not satisfied with this summary,” said Mimi Rocah, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York. “This leaves too many unanswered questions.”
Mueller’s seeming satisfaction with Trump’s limited cooperation here remains a mystery. But legal experts have posited that Mueller may have been unwilling to attempt to subpoena a sitting president of the United States. They cited the potentially bitter, partisan legal battle such a request would have caused, as one possible explanation for Mueller's reluctance.
If Mueller couldn’t prove the Trump campaign colluded with Russia beyond a reasonable doubt, how close did he get?
In his letter, Barr doesn’t describe what kind of evidence Mueller found that might have fallen short of proving crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, but his enigmatic language teases that some evidence of wrongdoing is in there. In one particular passage that’s raised eyebrows, Barr quoted Mueller as writing that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Through his lengthy, detailed indictments, Mueller dropped a trail of breadcrumbs pointing to various communications between Trump’s inner circle and operatives linked to Russia. Yet according to Barr, in the end, Mueller didn’t find a big, shared conspiracy.
Barr’s letter suggests that Mueller looked for ways to fit members of the Trump campaign into two criminal conspiracies that he’d already outlined against Russian agents.
One of those involved Russians posting a wave of divisive messages, seen by tens of millions on social media, to inflame voters and boost Trump. The other involved stealing damaging Democratic emails and posting them online via the renegade transparency group WikiLeaks.
“Mueller set a slam-dunk standard, and most prosecutors don’t set a slam-dunk standard.”
Mueller’s team wrote, for example, that a senior member of Trump’s campaign directed Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political advisor, to reach out to WikiLeaks. Elsewhere, prosecutors said they had evidence of communications between Stone and WikiLeaks.
But Mueller seemed to apply a strict standard of evidence for charging crimes throughout his 22-month probe, likely due to the enormous gravity of investigating a sitting American president, said Nick Ackerman, a former prosecutor for the team that investigated the Watergate scandal under former president Richard Nixon.
“Mueller’s theory of bringing cases has been basically beyond any doubt, as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt,” Ackerman told VICE News. “Mueller set a slam-dunk standard, and most prosecutors don’t set a slam-dunk standard. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. But it means that the only way you can intelligently approach this issue is to see whatever the evidence was that he had. Without seeing the underlying evidence, you’re missing the whole boat.”
Will we ever see Mueller’s full report and evidence?
Conventional wisdom in Washington D.C. right now suggests: We probably will — eventually.
Barr himself has said he’ll show us some of the report, though he’s argued parts will need to be redacted based on grand jury secrecy and other rules, such as whether or not releasing the details could damage national security.
“If House Democrats want the full report and the underlying materials they can get it, but it will take time and court battles before it happens.”
Democrats argue that’s not enough and that they need to see the whole thing — plus the underlying evidence.
Democrats will eventually be able to pry loose much of the report, but they’ll face a tougher battle for the interview transcripts and documents used to buttress his report’s findings, legal analysts said.
“If House Democrats want the full report and the underlying materials they can get it, but it will take time and court battles before it happens,” said Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor.
How did Barr decide that Trump didn’t obstruct justice so quickly?
Mueller, who spent the better part of two years investigating Trump for obstruction of justice, ultimately decided to present evidence rather than a conclusion.
Barr, Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, looked at that evidence over one weekend and decided, nope, Trump didn’t obstruct justice.
Apparently Barr did have some advance notice the report was coming, though. CNN reported Monday that Mueller had warned the attorney general three weeks ago that he wouldn’t reach a hard answer on the obstruction piece, which gave Barr some time to prepare.
But Barr had already faced criticism for seeming to arrive at that conclusion months ago, after sending a lengthy memo to the Department of Justice arguing that Mueller’s theory of the case appeared, from his then-outsider point of view, to be fatally flawed.
Barr claimed that his judgement was backed up by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller in the first place back in May 2017.
“Mueller declined to do make the determination so it fell on Barr and Rosenstein to do it,” Moreno wrote. “The problem is that their making the determination means the issue will likely stay alive in the political arena, because Democrats and the American public are no doubt going to want more information as to how the determination was reached.”
What about Mueller’s unfinished cases?
Mueller left open multiple cases that external legal observers had anticipated would reveal more about any possible connections between Trump and operatives linked to Russia. Mueller’s team, for example, is still fighting a closely-watched subpoena battle with a mysterious, foreign, state-owned company that’s been refusing to turn over information.
It remains unclear how that will play out.
Other open criminal cases, however, are likely to be turned over to U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country.
On Sunday, Mueller’s office confirmed that the case involving Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman, will be turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington D.C. Gates pleaded guilty to reduced charges of two counts of conspiracy after originally being charged with broader financial crimes and operating as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russia-friendly former president of Ukraine.
Stone’s case over charges of lying to Congress about his attempts to reach out to WikiLeaks is set to begin in November.
Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions on Russia during Trump’s transition, has postponed sentencing multiple times.
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks with the media after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)