Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election finally became public this morning, with an explanation for why President Trump isn’t facing criminal obstruction of justice charges that appeared to be in tension with Attorney General William Barr’s interpretation of the report. In a press conference before Mueller’s report was released, Barr offered an explanation for his decision not to prosecute the president on obstruction of justice charges, saying that he believes that regardless of whether Trump actually committed obstructive acts, he’s satisfied that the president had “non-corrupt motives.”
Mueller’s report, however, is darker and more ambiguous. Mueller’s team found “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations.” And in many cases, Trump was kept out of further legal hot water by his staff’s unwillingness to carry out his directives, such as when his White House counsel refused to fire Mueller. Mueller pointedly wrote in the introduction to the section of the report dealing with obstruction that the report did not “exonerate” Trump. Mueller also wrote that he didn’t try to come to a conclusion about the president’s innocence or guilt because of a longstanding Justice Department policy that prevents a sitting president from being charged and put on trial — which he saw himself as bound by.
The report also said that although there were many contacts between members of the Trump campaign and people affiliated with the Russian government, there was insufficient evidence to prove that the campaign was involved in a criminal conspiracy with Russia.
The question, now, is what Congress will do.
Although Barr has closed the door on criminal charges for Trump, Mueller’s evidence and analysis — particularly the story Mueller told of Trump’s willingness to repeatedly interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation — could take on a very different meaning in a political context. The president’s conduct doesn’t have to be criminal to be impeachable; instead, Congress can consider, among other factors, whether his behavior represents an ongoing threat to the country.
In a debate over whether Trump’s behavior merits political consequences like investigations or impeachment, Mueller’s evidence and — in the case of obstruction of justice — his analysis will be an important guide for Congress. Even though Mueller’s team didn’t think the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia rose to the level of a crime and Barr concluded that Trump shouldn’t be charged with obstruction of justice, that doesn’t necessarily matter in a political context.
Democratic leaders, though, have set a high bar for impeachment, saying that any effort would need to be bipartisan. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier today that he thinks Trump “has every right to feel good about what we’ve heard today.”
As the Mueller investigation wore on, Americans’ perspectives on Mueller became more and more politically polarized, with Republicans much less likely than Democrats to say they approve of the special counsel. Mueller’s favorable rating among Republicans did jump up quite dramatically after the release of Barr’s letter to Congress last month highlighting what he said were the report’s key findings. But Republicans were also much more likely than Democrats to say that the report (which hadn’t yet been released) had cleared Trump’s name, which means this support may decline if the report is widely perceived to be critical of the president.
So while Mueller’s report certainly contains details that are much worse for the president than Barr’s letter or his press conference indicated, it’s not clear yet what the political consequences — if any — will be. The report has, however, given ample fodder for a political showdown — including potential congressional testimony by Mueller himself.