Welcome back to Trump Watch. It finally happened: a redacted version of Robert Mueller III’s report was released Thursday, laying out the findings of the special counsel’s sweeping two-year inquiry into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 U.S. election, and possible acts of obstruction of justice.
You can—and should—read the 448-page report for specifics on Mueller’s findings. We’ve also got you covered with a few big-picture takeaways below. Thanks as always for reading.
Total exoneration? Nope
For weeks, the president has claimed “complete and total exoneration” by the special counsel probe. Mueller’s redacted report made clear that, in fact, the president was not exonerated in his report. Volume II of the report, which focused on the obstruction question, painted a portrait of how the president repeatedly sought to stifle the inquiry into his conduct. And the report made clear that Trump was unsuccessful in his efforts, largely because aides did not carry out his demands. Mueller ultimately declined to recommend charges against Trump.
But the report emphatically rejected the idea that Trump was in the clear. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the special counsel said. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Those lines appear three times in the report.
Barr Gets Heat
U.S. Attorney General William Barr is facing criticism over the release of Mueller’s report, beginning with how he held a press conference Thursday before the report was made public. In explaining the decision to not bring an obstruction charges against Trump, Barr appeared to offer up his own interpretation of the president's questionable behavior in office. He said they could be explained as examples of Trump’s frustration. While the president’s supporters saw exoneration, others likened Barr to being Trump’s personal attorney.
The report also fueled questions of whether Barr had misrepresented Mueller’s findings in the AG’s initial letter to Congress, spinning them in a light most favorable for Trump. During his press conference Thursday, Barr initially said that Mueller didn’t defer on his prosecution recommendation because of the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel’s view that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But Mueller’s report, some argued Thursday, suggests instead that the murky constitutional consideration likely guided Mueller’s decision to decline making a prosecution judgment.
Lawmakers could soon get a chance to press Barr on this issue in person: Barr has previously said he'd be prepared to testify in early May.
Mueller Defends His Probe
For months, Trump’s legal team argued the president could not obstruct justice for acts he took as the head of the executive branch, whether it was the firing of FBI Director James Comey or attempts to curb federal investigations. They argued that any statute restricting the president’s ability to do so would intrude on his ability to carry out his constitutional duties.
But Mueller, through pages of legal analysis, swatted down that line of thought. “Under applicable Supreme Court precedent, the Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize a President for obstructing justice through the use of his Article II powers,” the special counsel said. His report reasoned that, in the context of obstruction of justice statutes, Congress “has the authority to impose the limited restrictions contained in those statutes on the President' s official conduct to protect the integrity of important functions of other branches of government.”
“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report said.
While Mueller acknowledged that the broader question of whether it’s possible to indict a sitting president remains unresolved, his report does also recognize that Congress can impeach a president, and left open the idea that a president can face criminal liability upon leaving office.
More Mueller Report Reads:
Don McGahn Said Trump Was 'Testing His Mettle' Over Possibly Firing Mueller
DOJ's Jody Hunt Had a Front-Row Seat When All the Things Were Happening
Mueller Says ‘Some Evidence’ Suggests Trump Tried to Influence Manafort Jury
Mueller Considered Prosecuting Trump Tower Meeting Participants: Report
Jessie Liu, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM
ICYMI: Q&A with Jessie Liu
With the conclusion of the special counsel investigation, other federal offices have inherited cases that were initially brought by Mueller, including some of the country’s most sensitive and politically fraught prosecutions of people in Trump’s orbit.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, led by former Morrison & Foerster partner Jessie Liu, has inherited several of those cases. In an interview with the National Law Journal, she said it’s added some additional work for her prosecutors.
But Liu told me that her office is “well-equipped” to take on the challenge. Most of the attorneys, she noted, bring a “wealth of experience,” noting they hail from the office’s national security and fraud and public corruption teams.
You can read our Q&A here.