US attorney general Richard Barr’s letter hands Trump a big political victory, for now

US attorney general Richard Barr’s letter hands Trump a big political victory, for now
US President Donald J. Trump returns to the White House after the Justice Department released a summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's report in Washington, DC, USA, 24 March 2019. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

The report by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has apparently kicked the ball over to the US Congress to consider the next steps, rather than make it easy for them. Now what?

After almost two years of quiet investigations and swirling rumours, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has delivered his report on Donald Trump’s election campaign and the possibilities that his campaign had worked hand-in-glove with Russian operatives in the 2016 presidential election. A big drum roll, please.

Actually, his report hasn’t been made public yet, despite a non-binding congressional resolution (420 – 0) to do so. Instead, the prosecutor has delivered his report to the newly ensconced attorney general, Richard Barr, and his deputy, Rob Rosenstein. So, on the basis of their reading of the special prosecutor’s much larger report over the weekend (amazing speed readers that they are), Barr signed off on a four-page letter to the respective chairs and ranking members of Congress’s two judiciary committees, trying hard to put the very best possible face on Mueller’s findings about the president in the way they phrased their discussion in the letter.

Barr laboured hard to swat the whole ugly mess away, or at least minimise it. However, he was forced to acknowledge the extensive list of Americans associated with Trump who had already been indicted, pleaded guilty, convicted, and sentenced for one criminal undertaking or another. These have included lying to the FBI in the course of its investigations. And there were all those indictments of a football team’s worth of Russians who had carried off various types of electronic and social media interference or duplicity with the US electoral process. Not surprisingly, those individuals have not been tried or plead guilty – and, given those open indictments, it is unlikely they will be attempting to enter the US with their families to visit Universal Studios or Disneyworld any time soon.

Nevertheless, it now stands uncontested that the Barr letter has given heart to the president and his supporters when it read:

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or co-ordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

And as Trump himself said afterwards, “It was a complete and total exoneration. It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”

That said, however, Democrats opposed to the Trump administration could still find some cheer from one of the few actual, direct quotes from Mueller in Barr’s letter, that cited the Special Counsel’s words, saying, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”.

Still, it seems rather clear now that there will be no further indictments ahead, at least on the basis of the Mueller report. But Mueller’s team did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction, Barr wrote, and he ultimately decided not to make a traditional-style prosecutorial judgment. But, of course, the Mueller report and the Barr letter are taking it as givens that various Russian organisations and individuals certainly tried to affect the electoral outcome, and that those indicted Russians should remain so.

The Mueller report appears to confirm there were inappropriate conversations between Trump campaign operatives and various Russians, and that there were communications between WikiLeaks and campaign aides. But, at least in Barr’s description of Mueller’s findings, there was no clear, connecting tissue between all of those data points such that there was, in the president’s favourite word, any “collusion”.

Marc Fisher, writing in The Washington Post, noted:

“The long-awaited conclusion of [Mueller’s] investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is likely to harden congressional Republicans’ wall of support for President Trump, strengthen Democratic demands to hold Trump to account — and result in little change in public opinion, according to historians and politicians who have studied past national scandals.

Mueller’s conclusion . . . is likely to propel Washington into a period of prolonged and even more heightened partisan combat. The report, as summarised Sunday by [Barr], contains fuel enough for both sides to cling to their version of the truth about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and not nearly enough for either side to alter their views.”

And so, where does all this leave things in Washington? James Hohmann, writing in his Daily 202 column for The Washington Post, offered the 10 key takeaways circulating in the national capital and beyond, as a result of the Barr letter:

  1. Barr’s announcement is undeniably a political victory for Trump and that “No collusion” has shifted from a defiant mantra to a rallying cry for the president’s re-election in 2020.
  2. Mueller was far more cautious than previous special counsels such as Ken Starr or Leon Jaworski, in keeping with the way he defined his role narrowly.
  3. Refusing to grant Mueller an interview now appears to have paid off handsomely for Trump. “The president refused to sit for an interview in which prosecutors could have probed his motivations. Instead, they had to rely on written answers to their questions – which were carefully vetted by the president’s lawyers. Trump also refused to answer any questions about his activities in the White House. He responded only to questions related to the period before he became president. Mueller also didn’t interview Ivanka or Donald Trump Jr. in person.”
  4. Barr’s letter is as much a political document as a legal one. “It is not at all surprising that Trump’s attorney general says he does not believe the president obstructed justice. In fact, it might have been a key factor in Barr getting this job in the first place. Just nine months ago, while in private practice, Barr wrote a 19-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who now reports to him, criticising Mueller for pursuing a ‘fatally misconceived’ legal theory related to obstruction of justice.”
  5. Mueller found no smoking gun of collusion, but he clearly has no doubts Russia interfered in the election to help Trump. “Barr’s letter discusses Russian interference in 2016 as a given, but the president has previously rejected suggestions the Kremlin was trying to help him. He’s called it a hoax several times and suggested that a fat guy in his basement could have hacked the Democratic National Committee, refusing to accept the consensus of the intelligence community.”
  6. There is a lot we still just don’t know about all this. “Barr noted at the start of his letter that Mueller had the help of 19 lawyers and 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts and forensic accountants. The special counsel’s office also issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communications records, made 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence and interviewed around 500 witnesses. [But] This means [so far] we don’t know the identities of a lot of people Mueller talked with and looked into. There are others we know Mueller looked into, but we don’t know why he didn’t bring charges or what ever came from those lines of inquiry.”
  7. Barr’s timeline for disclosing more information from Mueller’s investigation remains vague and cloudy, opening space for lots more political mischief. “The AG reiterated on Sunday that his ‘goal and intent’ is to release as much of the report as possible. Barr said he’s asked Mueller to help identify information in his report that cannot be released publicly because it’s related to grand jury deliberations or other ongoing investigations that have been referred to other offices. ‘As soon as that process is complete, I will be in a position to move forward expeditiously in determining what can be released in light of applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies,’ Barr wrote.”
  8. The battle now moves squarely on to Capitol Hill. “Congressional Democrats don’t trust Barr or his summary. The letter ‘raises as many questions as it answers’, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement. ‘Given Mr. Barr’s public record of bias against the Special Counsel’s inquiry, he is not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.’ ”
  9. If anything, partisan divisions will only become more entrenched. “Historians and politicians who have studied past presidential scandals tell Marc Fisher [per the earlier citation] that Mueller’s conclusions are likely to harden congressional Republicans’ wall of support for Trump and strengthen Democratic demands to hold Trump accountable but result in little change in public opinion. The cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed by this report,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who spent the weekend golfing with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Finally:
  10. But other investigations still hover dangerously for Donald Trump. The Trump Organisation, the Trump inaugural committee and some of his close allies remain under scrutiny by state and federal investigators, including in the Southern District of New York.”

At this point, looking forward, the president (and most Republicans) are going to feel emboldened in pursuing his agenda, and it is likely to give him a shot of political adrenaline to be even more strident and (potentially) even more erratic as well.

On the other side of the aisle, especially since the Mueller report apparently will not be immediately helpful for them (although what may still lurk in those thousands of pages of supporting material remains a wild card), Democrats should consider fully the views of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who urged Democrats to concentrate on all the other potentially fruitful investigations of all the other funny business emanating from the Trump administration, as they carry out their constitutional oversight responsibilities. But going forward, it is now going to be a much harder slog. For everyone. DM


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