Donald Trump got ahead of Attorney General William Barr’s skis.
Hours after Barr issued his four-page summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly 400-page report, Trump appeared before reporters, saying, “After a long look, after a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side — where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened for our country — it was just announced there was no collusion with Russia.” He declared the findings “a complete and total exoneration.”
In an accompanying tweet, he proclaimed:
On the crime of obstructing justice, Barr had said exactly the opposite. Quoting a partial sentence from Mueller’s report, he wrote: “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”
Barr observed that Mueller’s report “sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.” According to Barr, Mueller “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” We don’t know why.
Rather than leave the determination to Congress, which alone has the power to decide whether the evidence warrants impeachment, Barr jumped into the breach: “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I 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.”
Regardless of the basis for the Barr/Rosenstein conclusion, Mueller has already confirmed that the facts — omitted entirely from Barr’s summary — do not exonerate Trump.
CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE UNITED STATES
Overall, Barr lifted only 89 words from Mueller’s report — and not a single complete sentence. On potential conspiracy charges, Barr again quoted only a partial sentence: “As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’”
Parse the words carefully. “Did not establish” — a phrase that Barr also used in assessing Trump’s obstruction of justice exposure — means only that Mueller found the evidence insufficient to prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” as required for a criminal conviction. But that’s not the standard of proof in an impeachment setting to determine fitness for office. Rather, each senator — sitting as judge and juror — decides as a matter of individual conscience whether the evidence is sufficient to remove the accused.
Turning to Russia’s “election interference activities,” Barr said that Mueller “determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election,” namely, hacking the Democratic National Committee and using a Russian troll farm to sow voter discord. Barr said that Mueller did not find that anyone in the Trump campaign “conspired or knowingly coordinated” with Russia in either effort.
But those are only two small pieces of a larger Trump-Russia puzzle. And they don’t resolve a critical national security question: Is Trump compromised?
Barr’s summary doesn’t discuss Mueller’s counterintelligence investigation, which is a separate inquiry from whether anyone committed crimes in connection with Russia’s election interference. Trump and his associates lied repeatedly about their dealings with Russia. We still do not know why, or how Trump’s secrets may have influenced his behavior as president.
In that respect, a key question remains open: What does Putin know about Trump that the American public doesn’t? The answer is the basis for what the Russians call “kompromat,” and the Trump-Russia Timeline provides some clues:
- Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump insisted that he had no dealings with Russia. After the election, we learned that Russian money had flowed into Trump projects for years, and that Trump’s negotiations over a proposed Trump Tower-Moscow continued until June 2016. Putin knew the truth all along. Americans didn’t.
- In the summer of 2016, the FBI warned the Trump and Clinton campaigns about likely infiltration efforts from foreign adversaries, including Russia, and urged the campaigns to report such attempts. Prior to the inauguration, Russian oligarchs, intermediaries, and other emissaries had more than 100 contacts with Trump associates. Trump consistently denied any such contacts and didn’t report any of them to the FBI. Again, Putin knew the truth.
- The Trump campaign knew that Putin wanted Trump to win the election. Even Barr acknowledged there were “…multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” While pushing a softer stance toward Russia (e.g., publicly urging reduced sanctions, secretly weakening the GOP platform on Ukraine), Trump embraced Putin’s help: “Russia, if you’re listening…”
Barr’s summary doesn’t address any of these counterintelligence issues. The known, undisputed facts set forth in the Trump-Russia Timeline certainly don’t fit a narrative of innocence. Perhaps that’s why every poll taken since Barr’s Mar. 24 summary shows that only Trump’s base — around 30 percent of voters — believes that he has been cleared of wrongdoing.
The vast majority of Americans want Mueller’s report to become public. Barr has promised a redacted version; congressional Democrats insist on a complete one. The fate of Mueller’s separate counterintelligence findings that are not revealed in his report is less certain. But the public’s need to know may be more urgent.
Here’s a complete list of the latest updates to the Trump-Russia Timeline:
DEC. 9, 2016: Graham Tells McCain To Deliver ‘Steele Dossier’ to FBI Director Comey (revision of previous entry)
MAR 24, 2019: Barr Issues Summary of Mueller Report (revision of previous entry)
MAR. 25, 2019: Kremlin Distorts Barr Report
MAR. 25, 2019: Trump Retweets Breitbart Call to Investigate Obama Administration
MAR. 25, 2019: McConnell Blocks Senate Resolution On Mueller Report
MAR. 26, 2019: Trump Attacks Media on Russia Investigation Coverage, Retweets Attacks on Mueller, FBI, DOJ, CIA
MAR. 27, 2019: Trump Continues to Blast Media After on Russia Coverage
MAR. 27, 2019: Trump Says He Won’t Rule Out Pardons; Says Schiff “Should Be Forced Out of Office”; Praises Nunes
MAR. 28, 2019: Trump Attack on Media Continues, Calls for Schiff’s Resignation
MAR. 28, 2019: House Republicans on Intelligence Committee Call on Schiff to Resign; Schiff Responds With Litany of Evidence Against Trump Campaign
MAR. 28, 2019: Paul Blocks Mueller Resolution
MAR. 29, 2019: Trump Tweets Video Clip of ‘Vindication Celebration’ Rally in Grand Rapids; Tweets About Democrats, Comey, NYTimes, and Washington Post
MAR. 29, 2019: Barr: Redacted Version of Mueller Report Available By Mid-April; Nadler: Apr. 2 Deadline For Unredacted Version ‘Still Stands’
MAR. 31, 2019: Trump Continues to Attack Russia Investigation, Schiff
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).