Attorney General William Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report vindicates, without reservation, President Donald Trump’s insistence that there was no collusion with the Russians regarding the 2016 campaign.
Clearing the president and his campaign of a provable conspiracy is a matter of law. But as a matter of national security, Barr’s letter does not clear up very much about the relationship between the Trump inner circle and the Russians, or about the behavior of the president himself.
There is unambiguous good news for the president in Barr’s letter. Most important, it means that on the central question Mueller was asked to investigate, there is no evidence to link the Trump campaign to the Russian government. This is not the same thing as saying that people in the Trump campaign were not involved in shady dealings with bad people, but it lays to rest — and for this we should all be thankful — the possibility that the president of the United States knowingly cooperated with an enemy government in seeking election.
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This, however, is an odd finding and one that is difficult to square with how many people are in legal trouble for lying about this very issue. If there was no canoodling with the Russians, why was there so much lying? How did Mueller manage to unravel what looks like a tangle of deceptions about Russia — and then reach a conclusion that there was no collusion with the Russians?
Without seeing the actual Mueller report, it seems at this point that there are three possibilities:
First, it may well be that Mueller only uncovered the usual swampy mess found under some of the slimiest rocks in Washington. It is not news that there are millions of dirty Russian dollars — billions, even — infesting an army of consultants, lobbyists and law firms in most of the world’s major capitals.
Expecting to cash in on a Trump loss
This would explain how a claque of grifters who were already feeding at the Russian trough latched on to Trump and then found themselves completely unprepared for life in the spotlight when Trump won. They expected Trump to lose, but they knew they could sell their proximity to a major campaign, and to senior figures in the GOP, to the Kremlin and other unsavory clients long after November 2016. (This would explain, for example, the otherwise baffling behavior of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was a walking Jenga pile of ethical conflicts that should have ruled him out for a White House job immediately.)
The fatal mistake of this group, from Paul Manafort on down, is that they underestimated Trump’s chances of winning and overestimated Trump’s intelligence. They never expected that Trump would do something as stupid as firing FBI Director James Comey while — according to a document read to The New York Times — bragging to the Russian ambassador that he did it to stop any further investigations. When Mueller began his work, they panicked, lied about things they didn’t need to lie about, and then nature took its course.
The second possibility is that Barr is carefully parsing Mueller here, noting — at least to the eyes of a layperson rather than a lawyer — that Mueller could not legally establish that members of the Trump campaign “or anyone associated with it” reached out and made a deal with people they knew to be representatives of the Russian government.
Bread crumbs from WikiLeaks to Moscow
Barr’s letter is carefully worded on these points, with terms like “knowingly,” “associate” and “government” potentially doing a lot of work. If Roger Stone, for example, communicated with Julian Assange about Hillary Clinton’s emails, does this pass the test of “campaign associates” “knowingly” working with “the Russian government”? For a lawyer, perhaps not, since Stone was not officially associated with the campaign, and Assange is not part of the Russian government.
For anyone following the bread crumbs from WikiLeaks to Moscow (as Barr’s letter itself notes) and from Stone back to the Trump family, it’s an easier call. What a lawyer can prove, however, and what a counterintelligence analyst might believe with a high degree of certainty are not the same thing.
The main problem with both of these theories is that they cannot explain very much about how Trump and his coterie acted right from the start of this entire matter. If there was no collusion, why did the president panic and fire Comey, and thus proliferate his own troubles beyond all measure? Why did the people around him lie at will, almost as a reflex? Why were senior Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, determined to undermine any investigations into the Russia matter if they were so certain that a fair inquiry by a man like Mueller would clear Trump?
This raises a third possibility. If senior figures in the Trump campaign knew they had done things that were unethical or illegal, they may have assumed that Mueller had more evidence, or that he was willing to prosecute them on the evidence he had. They might have then made a decision to lie pre-emptively, believing that Mueller had already bridged the gap between what the FBI suspected when it opened its investigation of the president after the Comey firing, and what could be proven in a court of law.
Mueller avoided a witch hunt
Until Congress sees the full report, we will not know Mueller’s reasoning. But if this is the case, and Mueller refused to pursue charges for which he did not have an ironclad case, then the president’s exoneration ironically rests entirely on Mueller’s caution and prudence — in other words, on the very qualities that prevented a swift and fruitful investigation from turning into a witch hunt.
Finally, it is important to note that this summary of the Mueller report only answers a very specific question about the election of 2016. It tells us nothing about the president’s longstanding relationship with the Kremlin, including his attempts to hide a pending deal in Moscow during the election, nor about his bizarre admiration of, and deference to, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Robert Mueller has done his country a great service. He has cleared a president on an important charge against him and damaged the Russian intelligence services in the process by exposing their efforts to influence our elections. He has jailed people for serious crimes. But he cannot answer questions that he was not asked, and those questions remain.
Tom Nichols is a national security professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom