Special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings have finally been made public — sort of — handing President Donald Trump and his White House a partial victory: no Russia collusion, but questions on obstruction.
But that’s hardly the end of it.
Only the most bare-bone details from the special counsel’s work were released on Sunday, in the form of a four-page summary from Attorney General William Barr. Now comes a heated battle with Congress that’s likely headed to court over just how much of Mueller’s investigation can be handed over to lawmakers, who have their own oversight duties that still could lead to Trump’s impeachment.
Here’s what just happened and the questions that remain:
Robert Mueller concluded there’s not enough evidence to file charges that Trump or any of his campaign aides conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election.
Well, that’s a relief, right?
Many people who have been tracking this probe over the last two years — including former FBI Director James Comey — said in the days leading up to the report, that they were hoping for a verdict that could put to rest the question that’s been hanging over the world since November 2016: whether a foreign power actually worked in partnership with a presidential campaign to win an American election.
So, in that sense, yes.
So, does that mean President Trump was telling the truth with his “no collusion” refrains?
It’s not quite that simple.
All we got Sunday is a summary of Mueller’s work and it does indeed tell us that the special counsel’s team didn’t find enough evidence to “establish” that Trump and Russia were working together.
But Mueller’s underlying investigative materials, which likely go into all manner of detail about what they found when issuing some 2,800 subpoenas, 500 executed search warrants and sitting for 500 witness interviews, remain under wraps.
Notably, the summary does not say that Mueller found no evidence at all to support the notion of collusion or conspiracy. In fact, it says there’s “evidence on both sides of the question” with regard to obstruction and other issues.
Trump threw a lot of shade at Mueller and DOJ over the last two years. Did they find the president obstructed justice?
The special counsel essentially punted on this question.
Barr said in his summary that the special counsel set out evidence on both sides of the question and left unresolved what are “‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the president’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” Barr wrote in a letter to the key House and Senate committees.
“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’” Barr added.
In an apparent departure from the four corners of Mueller’s report, Barr says he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
So, does that mean impeachment proceedings are toast?
We wouldn’t go that far.
Democrats predictably aren’t putting much stock in the Barr summary of the Mueller report, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement Sunday was written by someone who is “not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.”
So what comes next? House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler wants both Barr and Mueller to testify before his committee, and that could lead to some revealing disclosures about how the special counsel even handled the challenge of investigating a president who DOJ policy said he never could indict.
The Judiciary hearings haven’t yet been scheduled, but Barr will also be on Capitol Hill to testify about his DOJ budget request in early-to-mid-April. So, yeah, fireworks are coming.
Is anyone else going to get indicted?
The short answer is: Mueller isn’t bringing any more charges, isn’t recommending any and hasn’t kept any under wraps.
But the special counsel never was the only sheriff in town. Federal prosecutors in New York have active cases open examining Trump’s inauguration and campaign spending. State attorneys general are examining Trump’s business practices. The Democrat-led House has subpoena power and a long list of oversight demands.
And anyone who may be cleared from Mueller’s investigation still needs to take note of a line in the Barr summary referring to cases the special counsel shipped to other offices, which suggests there are still active investigations. It’s already known that some of Mueller’s cases have been handed off to the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., while other related cases are now in the hands of federal prosecutors in northern Virginia.
What happens now in the fight to see the rest of Mueller’s report and who will prevail?
It may be time for everyone to lawyer up.
The key findings — and non-findings — in Mueller’s final report are certain to intensify the pressure the Justice Department faces from Democrats in Congress to turn over the rest of the report, as well as evidence gathered during the underlying probe. If Mueller’s conclusions had been more favorable to Democrats, Justice Department officials might have had a bit more breathing room, but now the demands for that material will be politically urgent.
While pledging as much transparency as possible, Barr is already warning about grand jury secrecy issues and potential impacts on other investigations. However, legally, Congress appears to have the upper hand if it decides to press the question. In 1974, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals approved sending grand jury information about President Richard Nixon’s alleged culpability in Watergate to the House Judiciary Committee.
But a court fight could take a while and in the meantime, the Justice Department says officials have already begun the process of trying to separate what — in their views — can and can’t be revealed from the report. Officials have not committed to a timetable for that review. Congress seems likely to try to insist on a deadline.
One tricky question Barr’s latest letter leaves unaddressed is how the department plans to handle the privacy interests of individuals other than Trump in what Mueller found and, in particular, in what instances he considered charging people with crimes, but did not.
Is there a rumble coming between Barr and Mueller?
Neither Barr nor Mueller seems like the type to wind up in a brawl.
The two men have been personal friends for 30 or so years and their wives go to Bible study together.
Still, Sunday’s developments do provide fodder for potential future conflict between the two. Barr did not consult with Mueller before sending the letter Sunday characterizing Mueller’s findings, according to a Justice Department official.
Barr in his summary also seems to have taken pains to indicate what conclusions were his and which were Mueller’s but there was no requirement in Justice Department regulations for the attorney general to opine on what Mueller found with respect to obstruction. It’s unclear whether Barr is implicitly criticizing Mueller for not reaching a more explicit conclusion on that point.
Barr does seem to seek cover for his judgment by hugging Rosenstein and noting that the No. 2 DOJ official concurs that there was no prosecutable case on the obstruction front against Trump, even if a sitting president could be indicted, which is debatable. It’s unclear whether Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and then supervised him for the bulk of his time on the job, concurred in the special counsel’s decision to punt on obstruction, but he’s claiming he was keeping close tabs on Mueller’s work so it’s hard to believe he didn’t at least know how the special counsel planned to handle this politically-sensitive issue in his final report.
Mueller’s done. But what happens to everything else he’s been doing that isn’t quite finished yet?
The special counsel’s lights aren’t turned out — yet.
Mueller spokesman Peter Carr confirmed on Sunday morning that plans are being implemented to hand off their active cases, with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C. taking over longtime Trump associate Roger Stone’s trial that is slated to begin in early November and the sentencing for Rick Gates that has been repeatedly delayed over the last year while the former Trump campaign deputy cooperated in several ongoing investigations.
Federal prosecutors in D.C. will also handle Mueller’s case against the Concord Management and Consulting, Carr said. The Russian-based company led by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin has hired American lawyers and is demanding a trial to fight back against charges it helped orchestrate the massive online campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
No final decisions have been made yet, Carr added, over who will take the lead on two other high-profile active Mueller cases: the sentencing for Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and efforts to force compliance with a subpoena against Andrew Miller, a Stone associate who last month lost in federal appeals court in his attempt to have the Mueller appointment tossed out as unconstitutional.
Mueller himself is expected to leave his post in the coming days, though Carr on Sunday said he didn’t have a specific date yet. Carr also said he will remain the press contact for the special counsel’s office.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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