Many people are shocked that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” This soon-to-be infamous quotation will forever rankle all who recoiled at the sight of President Donald Trump cheating on Melania with Russia. But it’s not exactly as it sounds.
Mueller conclusively found that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 American presidential election. In order for Mueller to have brought conspiracy charges, he needed to find a clear agreement between the Trump campaign and Russia to jointly interfere with the election. No clear agreement, no indictment.
There are a lot of sleazy things the Trump campaign did that might not satisfy the demanding legal requirements of a conspiracy. Things like: publicly asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails; meeting with a Russian operative at Trump Tower to get “dirt” on Clinton; and handing over proprietary polling data to a man with ties to Russian intelligence.
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Russia and Trump might have bulldozed the same immoral path to hijack a free presidential election, but Mueller’s conclusion that they were not coordinating with one another stopped him from finding an indictable conspiracy.
People often dislike lawyers because what they say is not always what they mean. So does Mueller’s report mean he concluded there was no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia? No.
No indictments doesn’t mean no evidence
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard the Justice Department uses to indict. It is the law’s highest burden of proof. If Mueller used the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to conclude that his investigation “did not establish” a Trump-Russia conspiracy, there could still be evidence of a conspiracy that simply does not rise to the level needed to indict in a criminal case.
Mueller’s report should reveal the standard he used and the evidence he found.That is why it is imperative that Attorney General William Barr release the full Mueller report. Only then can Congress and the public assess the true nature of the Trump-Russia connection.
As for obstruction of justice, Mueller offered this: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Mueller left the obstruction question to Barr, who was appointed by Trump.
What is disturbing about Mueller’s abdication is that Barr’s audition for the part of attorney general was preceded, last June, by a gratuitously submitted memo in which Barr essentially said that it is impossible for the president to commit obstruction of justice. It is no wonder then that Barr quickly concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge obstruction.
Barr letter distracts from Trump corruption
While Barr should have recused himself from deciding a case on which he had ventured an opinion, he did not. Thus he avoided the same misstep that made predecessor Jeff Sessions target bait for the president’s endless attacks.
Trump’s investment in his new attorney general paid dividends similar to that of his branding formula for Trump Towers. Instead of lending his name, with little financial risk, he used his position as president, with little political risk, and collected huge returns.
How this turn of events will play out is quickly taking shape. Trump is already tweeting “Total EXONERATION,” despite Mueller’s unequivocal statement that the report “does not exonerate him.” The Fox News outrage machine is running full throttle, with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham seeking “repercussions” against the news media, including a call for CNN’s president to be fired for daring to report on Mueller’s investigation.
Continued efforts to ferret out Trump corruption have been made exponentially more difficult by Mueller’s report, or at least the summary released by Barr. A nuanced understanding of Barr’s summary is necessary to distinguish a flesh wound from a fatal blow, and nuance is in short supply in an age where informational diets rely on headlines and tweets.
Trump and Russia had the same goal
A Google search of “no collusion” popped up headlines from most major news outlets that have failed to distinguish between no evidence of collusion and evidence that is insufficient to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Danger to American democracy can come in many forms. Even if there is not a single piece of evidence supporting coordination with Russia, Mueller’s report tells us that Russia and Trump were working toward the same goal — making Trump the most powerful man in the world. Attaining the identical result might have taken different paths, but Trump knew the endgame.
Trump fawned over a ruthless dictator, undercut American foreign policy, and sold out his own intelligence agencies. Russia’s illegal election interference is an addiction. The failure of Mueller’s report to rein in the president will ensure that it remains an addiction as we head into the 2020 presidential campaign. Russia is a habit Donald Trump cannot break.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Los Angeles and Detroit. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1