It will take time to digest special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report. But this much is already clear: Beware of Attorney General William Barr’s partial sentences that have become the basis for unwarranted spin about Trump’s “exoneration.”
On potential criminal conspiracy charges against the Trump Campaign, Barr’s Mar. 24, 2019 letter lifted these words for his “summary” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report:
“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Now add the lead-in that Barr omitted that provides context for his excerpt (which is in italics):
“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.”(Vol. I, p. 5)
With respect to obstruction of justice, Barr’s excerpting was even more egregious. In his letter to Congress, he wrote that Mueller did not make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment.” But he didn’t reveal the reasons, which included a prior Official of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president may not be prosecuted.
Quoting Mueller selectively, Barr concluded: “[W]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
In its entirety, the paragraph reads as follows (Barr’s excerpt in italics):
“Fourth,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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. 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.” (Vol. II, p. 2)
There’s more to come, including the critical distinction between a criminal investigation into the crime of conspiracy and the counterintelligence inquiry collusion. Meanwhile, ignore claims that Mueller exonerated Trump. He didn’t. Not by a lot.
Steven J. Harper is the creator and curator of the Trump-Russia Timeline appearing at Dan Rather’s News & Guts and at Just Security. He is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of four books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”) and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He blogs at The Belly of the Beast. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJHarper1).