After two years, 37 indictments, and prison terms for the president’s former lawyer, campaign manager, and (probably) national security adviser, special counsel Robert Mueller has completed his investigation of Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Below, we answer all your most pressing questions about what we know so far.
FINALLY. Okay, what does the Mueller report say?!
We don't really know.
But...but you said it was complete!
Correct. Federal regulations governing the special counsel's appointment, however, require him to transmit a report not to Congress or to the public, but instead on a confidential basis to the attorney general, William Barr, who was confirmed to that position just over a month ago. The Mueller report itself was not released on Sunday; what you might hear referred to as "the Mueller report" today is actually Barr's four-page summary of it, which he wrote over the weekend and delivered to House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler.
All right, well, what does that say?
According to Barr, Mueller's report is divided into two sections: one dealing with whether the Trump campaign "conspired or coordinated" with Russia in 2016, and one dealing with the Trump White House's alleged efforts to obstruct law enforcement efforts to find answers to that question. On the first issue, says Barr, the investigation affirmed that Russian government actors were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee servers and used WikiLeaks to disseminate those stolen documents. It found no evidence, however, of the Trump campaign's criminal complicity in those efforts.
On the obstruction-of-justice question, Barr's letter is notably vague: It says that Mueller did not make a determination one way or the other, but instead "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." Quoting Mueller's report directly, Barr adds, "The special counsel states that 'while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.' "
Hmmm. How does Barr propose to resolve that ambiguity?
By exonerating him. Barr goes on to say that after consulting with deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, he has "concluded that the evidence...is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction of justice offense."
That feels like a really big and significant finding. What evidence exists for it, exactly?
We don't know! Barr's position is that he has reviewed it, and you can trust his analysis.
I want to make sure I understand this. Barr made a determination after two days that Mueller didn't feel comfortable making after two years?
Is there any reason to question the, um, objectivity of Barr's claims?
There sure is. Before he was nominated as attorney general, Barr lobbied hard for the job by offering vociferous defenses of the president to any media outlet that would listen. In The Washington Post, he praised Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey as "the right call," and parroted Trump's "13 angry Democrats" criticism of Mueller's team by opining that the special counsel should have sought a more politically balanced roster of attorneys. A year after the 2016 election, he was still arguing in The New York Times that Congress should be probing the Clinton-Uranium One conspiracy theory, and has generously excused Trump's calls for law enforcement investigations of his political opponents as fully within his powers as chief executive.
Just in case Trump hadn't gotten the hint, while Barr was still in private practice last summer, he wrote a baffling, unsolicited memo to Rosenstein that made the rounds in Washington's conservative legal circles. In it, he argued that Mueller's obstruction inquiry was "fatally misconceived" because "facially lawful" presidential exercises of authority—like, for example, firing one's FBI director, even if he does so for the purposes of trying to save a friend who lied to the FBI from legal trouble—cannot constitute obstruction of justice. It was easily the thirstiest and most transparent stunt in Republican politics for two whole months, until Brett Kavanaugh secured a seat on the Supreme Court by screaming, "I LIKE BEER!" at bewildered members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both stunts, of course, worked.
Are there any hints we can glean from this glorified book report about the obstruction-related evidence?
Maybe. The fact that Trump was not involved in an underlying crime, Barr says, "bears upon [his] intent with respect to obstruction." In other words, because the president did not collude, it is less likely that he acted to interfere with an investigation into nonexistent collusion.
Is the existence of an underlying crime necessary for an obstruction-of-justice charge?
No. From The Washington Post:
“For example,” [said] former federal prosecutor David Alan Sklansky, now of Stanford University, “if the President wrongfully tried to block the investigation into Russian interference in the election because he wanted to protect the Russians, or because he didn’t want people to know that a foreign government had tried to hack the election in his favor, that would constitute obstruction.”
Second, Barr notes that to convict Trump or one of his associates of obstruction, the government would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person, "acting with corrupt intent, engaged in obstructive conduct with a sufficient nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding." In other words, the person had to knowingly obstruct justice, and do so by interfering with an ongoing or looming investigation. What Barr seems to be saying here is that acts that might look like obstruction are not obstruction if the actor passively obstructed justice, or acted before law enforcement began an investigation.
Okay, but wouldn't this require Barr to know Trump's intent in each case?
How could Barr know that? Has Trump ever sat for an official interview as part of this investigation? With Barr, or with anyone?
He has not.
Lastly, when asserting that none of the president's actions meet these thresholds, Barr notes that many of Trump's actions "took place in public view." This seems to suggest that actions which might have been obstruction had Trump done them in secret—for example, asking Russia to steal Hillary Clinton's e-mails, or telling Lester Holt on national TV that he fired Comey because of "this Russia thing"—are not obstruction because he felt no need to hide what he was doing from anyone.
So what you're telling me is that the president's attorney general, who has made extremely clear his view that otherwise-lawful hiring and firing decisions cannot constitute unlawful obstruction of justice, concluded that the president did not obstruct justice?
Correct. If the Mueller report were a big-budget movie, Barr's letter is the equivalent of its principal financier confidently assuring critics that the movie is a surefire Oscar contender before any of them have the opportunity to see it.
How many complete sentences from the Mueller report does the Barr letter contain?
Zero. He only quoted partial sentences.
Will we ever get to see the report for ourselves?
Hopefully. Considering that the American people were subjected two decades ago to 455 grueling pages detailing Bill Clinton's sex life, it seems appropriate that we get more than four pages this time around. In his confirmation hearings, Barr would not promise to release the report, stating only that his goal would be to "provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law." This is one of those statements that sounds nice and means exactly nothing.
Barr reiterated this sentiment in his letter to Nadler, promising that his Department of Justice would begin the process of determining what information it would need to redact in order to safeguard confidential grand jury information and refrain from interfering in other, ongoing matters—including, he notes, ones Mueller has referred to other law enforcement officials. "As soon as that process is complete," he wrote, "I will be in a position to move forward expeditiously in determining what can be released in light of applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies." There is no timetable for this event, and no indication of how much information will eventually make it through the filter.
Did the ambiguity stop the MAGA industrial complex from declaring total victory on Sunday?
Hahaha. It did not.
How does the Barr letter affect the likelihood of House Democrats initiating impeachment proceedings?
The Constitution's "high crimes and misdemeanors" standard for impeachment is a political term of art, not a legal one, and it is possible for Congress to decide that a given course of conduct is impeachable even if it is not indictable. (This is another reason Barr's letter is so strange; whether he's the one who should be drawing legal conclusions from its facts is, at best, a debatable proposition.)
The Judiciary Committee is likely to subpoena the report in the days to come, and depending on how much of the report Barr ultimately releases, the Committee may subpoena Barr and/or Mueller, too. Basically, by releasing a grip of partisan talking points in lieu of the actual document, Barr has produced a political Rorschach test: Republicans will say they were right about the "witch hunt" all along, while Democrats, noting Barr's acknowledgment that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president, have no reason to halt their own investigation into the underlying facts.
Does the Barr letter in any way affect Trump's involvement in felony campaign-finance law violations, his lies about his efforts to construct Trump Tower Moscow, or his well-documented history of literal tax fraud, about which we've all somehow decided to forget?
It does not.