WASHINGTON – Since his appointment nearly two years ago, Robert Mueller sought to answer one overriding question that has cast a shadow over Donald Trump’s presidency: Did his campaign coordinate with the Kremlin to win the White House?
A summary of the special counsel’s investigation delivered to lawmakers Sunday said unequivocally that neither Trump nor his campaign conspired with Russian efforts to sway the election that put him in office.
More: Analysis: With Mueller report in, nothing’s over. But for Trump, everything has changed
But the four-page summary fell short of giving the White House the “complete and total exoneration” the president, his lawyers and political allies claimed after Attorney General William Barr released it to lawmakers and the public.
On the separate question of whether Trump sought to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry, the special counsel was not equally definitive: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Barr wrote, quoting from Mueller’s report.
The striking passage from Mueller’s still-secret report all but guaranteed that the 22-month inquiry will continue to loom over Trump’s administration. So too does the cascade of new investigations, including criminal inquiries directed at Trump’s business and his inaugural committee.
Because Mueller did not make a definitive finding on obstruction, Barr said the decision was left to him and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to conclude that Trump’s conduct – including his firing of former FBI Director James Comey after urging the then-director to drop an ongoing inquiry into national security adviser Michael Flynn – did not amount to a crime. That Trump’s appointees rather than Mueller drew that conclusion left legal observers and Trump’s critics unsatisfied.
“On obstruction, it seems he concluded nothing, in a very bizarre move,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said of Mueller. “Essentially, he punted.”
Mariotti said Barr’s decision to absolve the president of possible legal jeopardy will not end the debate.
“I wouldn’t take his word for it,” he said.
While Trump and his lawyers have sought to frame Sunday’s disclosures as vindication, others cautioned that the president remains in the cross-hairs of multiple of federal investigations in New York and congressional inquiries in Washington, all spawned by Mueller’s probe, that promise to linger well into the 2020 campaign and beyond.
“President Trump ought to be very careful about screaming vindication,” said Jimmy Gurule, a former Justice Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration. “His worst nightmare may yet be ahead of him.”
Vindication is precisely what Trump claimed, just as he had done repeatedly since Mueller’s appointment in 2017. Speaking to reporters in Florida, where he spent the weekend, Trump blasted Mueller’s investigation as “an illegal takedown that failed” and lamented it was a “shame our country had to go through this.”
White House under siege
Unaddressed by Trump’s supporters was the significant damage Mueller’s probe has already inflicted on Trump’s presidency. Mueller has charged 34 people with a range of criminal offenses and secured convictions of some of Trump’s closest political allies.
Federal and state prosecutors in New York have taken aim at Trump’s real estate empire and hush money payments to alleged mistresses.
Those investigations continue to threaten some of those closest to the president, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., and longtime Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg. His longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who faces three years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and orchestrating illegal payments to women who have claimed to have had sex with Trump, is cooperating with prosecutors.
And House Democrats have said they are ramping up their own investigations of the president.
The political impact of Mueller’s work has been far reaching, leaving the White House under siege for the better part of two years, frustrating the president’s ability to pursue an agenda in Congress, raising the specter of impeachment and complicating his relationship with foreign leaders on the world stage, according to aides.
And while Trump has already sought to dismiss Mueller’s now-shuttered investigation like so many vanquished political opponents, the damage its revelations caused might not end so quickly. In charging documents, Mueller showed that some of the president’s most senior aides repeatedly lied in part to protect their boss’ business and political fortunes.
“What Mueller has done stands on its own,” said Robert Ray, who served as an independent counsel in the investigation into President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful Arkansas land deal that expanded to include his extramarital relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I think he has done as much as he could do and more than I expected,” Ray said of Mueller. “He’s already shown that there was penetration into our election system by Russian operatives. That, alone, should be frightening.”
Ray referred to charges Mueller leveled last year against 13 Russian nationals and three businesses – including an internet firm tied to the Kremlin – accused of conspiracy, identity theft, failing to register as foreign agents, and violating laws that limit the use of foreign money in U.S. elections.
A defining investigation
Although Mueller found no evidence to support a conspiracy involving Trump and the Kremlin, the first two years of his administration have been largely defined by the contours of the Russia investigation.
In the run-up to the inauguration, the president-elect attacked U.S. intelligence agencies, blaming officials for leaking the contents of an unverified dossier prepared by a former British intelligence officer that linked Trump to the Russian government.
That only accelerated after Trump took the oath of office.
Barely a month into the administration, the new president was forced to fire his national security adviser, Flynn, who lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office. Flynn, who pleaded guilty, is awaiting sentencing for that crime.
In March 2017, Trump turned on the Justice Department and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia inquiry. Two months later, he abruptly dismissed Comey for his handling of the Russia probe, setting the stage for appointment of Mueller who would go on to examine whether the president sought to obstruct the investigation by firing his FBI director.
Eventually, Trump ousted Sessions, too. Those moves further fueled concerns of possible obstruction. Mueller’s report appeared to leave that question unanswered. Barr and Rosenstein said that the evidence investigators gathered “is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Patrick J. Cotter, also a former federal prosecutor, said proving intent in an obstruction case can often be a difficult task.
Cotter said that Mueller and Barr likely looked at the facts as longtime prosecutors and decided that the evidence did not rise to the threshold of guaranteeing a conviction, were the president ever to be charged.
“I don’t think it’s a punt to do that,” Cotter said. “That’s their job.”
But Cotter also said that it appears neither Barr’s summary nor the principal findings from Mueller’s report vindicate Trump.
“I don’t mean to be flip, but (Trump) should learn how to read,” Cotter said.
Lies and Russia
While Mueller’s primary mission was to determine whether Trump coordinated with Russia to benefit his campaign, Bruce Udolf, who served as associate independent counsel in the Clinton investigation, said the lack of such a finding does not diminish the gravity of what the special counsel did find.
Of the six former aides to Trump charged, five were accused of lying to investigators or Congress, mostly about subjects involving contacts with Russia.
Flynn’s attempts to deny the substance of his talks with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, served as a precursor to a series of disclosures highlighting a campaign eager to benefit from Russia’s help and aides who later lied about their interests in Russia’s potential assistance.
The criminal charges lodged against members of Trump’s inner-circle are unrivaled since more than a dozen people, including a national security adviser and a defense secretary, were implicated in a secret operation to provide arms to Iran during the Reagan administration in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Political peril in Congress
If the criminal investigations pursued by Mueller and the ongoing inquiries launched by federal prosecutors in New York represent the most grave legal threats, renewed examinations opened by congressional Democrats offer potential political peril.
Earlier this month, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee opened a sweeping investigation, requesting documents from 81 “agencies, entities, and individuals” connected to the administration and Trump’s private businesses.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the Judiciary panel, said he would ask Barr to testify before his committee and would also demand the release of Mueller’s full report.
“The attorney general’s comments make it clear that Congress must step in to get the truth and provide full transparency to the American people,” Nadler said. “The president has not been exonerated by the special counsel.”
Meanwhile, the leader of another House committee has said it was broadening its own examination of Russian election interference, and yet another panel took searing testimony from Cohen, who publicly accused the president of participating in a criminal conspiracy.
‘No collusion’ to remain Trump’s refrain
Mueller’s lack of a finding on the obstruction question and the newly-launched criminal and congressional inquiries are not expected to silence Trump’s most loyal supporters.
“People are going to wave it around and his supporters are going to say it shows no collusion,” said Ryan Williams, a longtime GOP operative. “The president has basically made the investigation a partisan issue and undermined Robert Mueller’s credibility with his base.”
Williams noted that past administrations also sought to challenge the credibility of their investigators. James Carville, Clinton’s then-longtime political aide, threatened to launch an “all out” public relations war against then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
Then-Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole once described investigators looking into the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration as “highly paid assassins.” Dole said the independent counsel at the time, Lawrence Walsh, was running a “witch hunt,” a term Trump has used more than 170 times on Twitter since his inauguration.
A key difference with Trump, Williams said, is that he takes the shots himself, rather than attempting to appear above the fray. Unusually confident as his own communications director, Trump has appealed to supporters in part by eschewing political correctness and embracing a penchant for rhetorical combat.
“We’ve been on a trendline,” Williams said, “but President Trump has certainly changed the way the president responds to investigations of their administration.”
Sunday’s disclosure ended one investigation, but means there are many more to which Trump must still respond.