- President Donald Trump declared he had been vindicated over the weekend, when Attorney General William Barr announced that the special counsel Robert Mueller did not find any evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
- With respect to whether Trump obstructed justice – an issue his lawyers believed he faced significant legal jeopardy over – prosecutors did not come to a decision one way or another, but Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that Trump did not obstruct justice.
- Legal scholars said it was a significant victory for the president that Mueller did not find evidence of conspiracy.
- But they expressed alarm at Barr’s decision to come to a conclusion vis-a-vis obstruction, given his view that the line of inquiry was “legally insupportable” from the beginning and should not have been sanctioned by the Justice Department.
- House Democrats are now calling for the release of Mueller’s full report, as well as the underlying evidence, so they can determine whether Trump engaged in impeachable conduct.
- Prosecutors “may not have found evidence that rose to the level of criminal conduct,” said a former senior Justice Department official who previously worked closely with Mueller. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t find evidence of wrongdoing. If – or when – Congress and the public get that information, it will undoubtedly create another firestorm for the president.”
On Sunday, the biggest cloud hanging over President Donald Trump lifted when Attorney General William Barr announced that the special counsel Robert Mueller did not find evidence that anyone in Trump’s orbit “conspired or coordinated with Russia” during the 2016 presidential election.
With respect to obstruction of justice, Barr said prosecutors did not come to a conclusion one way or another.
“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President [sic] committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,'” Barr wrote. But after reviewing Mueller’s findings over the weekend, the attorney general concluded that the president did not obstruct justice.
Trumpworld rejoiced at the news, with the president tweeting, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION KEEP AMERICA GREAT.”
‘This finding should conclude the matter of conspiracy’
Legal experts agree it is significant that Mueller’s investigation did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to tilt the race in his favor, given that the question made up the crux of the FBI’s focus.
Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of Michigan, told INSIDER, “Mueller is a superb investigator who spent considerable time and resources looking for conspiracy. If he didn’t find it, no one could, and this finding should conclude the matter of conspiracy.”
But Justice Department veterans also emphasized that the prosecutorial standard for proving conspiracy is higher than the counterintelligence standard used by agencies like the CIA. And they noted that the release of Barr’s summary indicates that Mueller’s work took on a prosecutorial focus rather than a counterintelligence one.
“There is no doubt that there were multiple overtures from the Russians to the Trump campaign, meetings between Trump associates and Russians, phone calls between Trump associates and Russians, and so forth,” one former senior Justice Department official who used to work closely with Mueller told INSIDER.
“But to be able to prove that there was a conspiracy between Trump and the Russians, that’s an incredibly high bar for prosecutors to meet, and if they can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they would decline to bring such a charge, even if they had evidence pointing to that conclusion,” the former official added.
Legal scholars expressed more alarm, however, with Barr’s conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice after Mueller declined to make a decision one way or the other.
Barr’s conclusion on obstruction ‘is just plain wrong,’ experts say
Many of their concerns stemmed from the views Barr expressed in a memo last year, in which he described Mueller’s obstruction investigation as “legally insupportable,” adding that it should not be sanctioned by the Justice Department. Barr sent the memo to the Justice Department, Trump’s legal team, and lawyers representing other figures of interest in the Russia probe, like senior adviser Jared Kushner, who counseled Trump to fire FBI director James Comey in 2017.
In his summary of Mueller’s findings, Barr reasoned that because Trump was not guilty of the underlying crime of conspiracy, he did not have corrupt intent when he fired FBI director James Comey, and therefore was not guilty of obstructing justice. Barr noted that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came to their conclusion without regard to the department’s guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson, said on Twitter that he found it “odd” that Barr and Rosenstein came to their own conclusion in the obstruction thread after Mueller’s team declined to.
“If it is a decision left to Congress, and Mueller wasn’t weighing in, why did they?” Miller wrote. “[Barr] could’ve just passed on Mueller’s findings, but decided to put his thumb on the scale after a 48 hour review of the facts.”
However, CNN reported on Monday that Mueller told Barr and Rosenstein three weeks ago that he would not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Nevertheless, Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal law, told INSIDER he was concerned that Barr came to a conclusion in the obstruction thread instead of the special counsel, given the attorney general’s history of opposition to the line of inquiry.
Ohlin added that it was also “bizarre” that Barr said Trump didn’t have corrupt intent because he wasn’t guilty of the crime of conspiracy.
“That is just plain wrong,” he said. “Trump’s corrupt intent was broadcast, on national TV, for all to see, when he admitted that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Also, Comey stated that Trump asked him to back off on [investigating former national security adviser Michael] Flynn and Comey refused to comply. The fact that Trump didn’t personally conspire with the Russians over election interference isn’t relevant to the question of corrupt intent.”
Trump may not be out of the woods just yet
McQuade expressed similar concerns, telling INSIDER, “Mueller’s report did not conclude that Trump obstructed justice, nor did it exonerate him. Why not? Was this because Mueller believed he could not indict a sitting president, and so he was deferring this question to Congress?”
She added that Barr’s decision to conclude that Trump didn’t obstruct justice “would seem to defeat the whole purpose for a special counsel to avoid conflicts of interest by insulating the decision maker from the executive branch chain of command.”
In light of Barr’s summary, a growing number of House Democrats are moving to demand the release of Mueller’s full report, as well as the underlying evidence he used to reach his conclusions, as they conduct their own inquiries into the president and his administration.
The former senior Justice Department official who worked with Mueller said Trump could find himself in yet another legal quagmire if the department releases the underlying evidence for the Mueller report to Congress.
Barr’s summary noted that in the obstruction inquiry, Mueller’s team laid out all the evidence they had on both sides of the issue and presented it to the Justice Department. In their investigation into whether the campaign colluded with Russia, court filings indicate that prosecutors may have kept several details under wraps to protect ongoing legal proceedings.
“They may not have found evidence that rose to the level of criminal conduct,” the former official said. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t find evidence of wrongdoing. If – or when – Congress and the public get that information, it will undoubtedly create another firestorm for the president.”
Barr is set to testify before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on April 9 about the Justice Department’s budget.
But the hearing will be open for congressional leadership to sit in on, and one congressional aide told INSIDER, “There isn’t a chance in hell that Barr doesn’t get bombarded with questions about why he usurped Congress’ authority and took it upon himself to absolve the man who nominated him – and who he previously said couldn’t be guilty of obstruction – of criminal conduct.”