On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr submitted a letter to congressional leaders asserting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had not found sufficient evidence of a conspiracy between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government. Barr also explained that Mueller had declined to conclude whether or not Trump obstructed justice and that Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had concluded that Trump did not obstruct justice.
The letter raised many questions about Barr's and Mueller's motivations, whether Trump committed impeachable offenses and whether Democrats, and the media, were wise to focus on Mueller's investigation over the past two years. To help make sense of it all — at least until the actual Mueller report is released to the public, if that ever happens — we've pulled together some of the best analysis and commentary we've read about Barr's letter.
Mueller Never Had The Power To Singlehandedly Bring Trump Down
Law professor Frank Bowman, writing on his blog, argues that the conclusions described in Barr's letter were in no way surprising given given narrow scope of Mueller's assignment and the thinness of the known evidence of a robust conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government. Bowman offers "three main lessons of the Mueller investigation":
The first is that Trump's opponents have always invested far too much hope in Robert Mueller. He was asked to investigate one quite narrow segment of Trump's affairs. He seems to have done so, vigorously, professionally, and dispassionately. But he was never going to be Trump's Ken Starr, peering into every cranny of Trump's life before and after the election for the silver bullet that would bring down a president. Mueller lacked the powers the old independent counsel statute gave Starr, and happily I think, he lacks the zealotry that propelled Starr to the sordid fizzle of the Clinton impeachment. He has provided a salutary example of what the law, and the prosecutors who serve it, are supposed to do.
Second, the very narrowness of the Mueller inquiry should remind us that the problem with Donald Trump has never been one misdeed or misjudgment, or even one extended disgraceful episode. Nor is it the things we do not know about him (unless he really is compromised by Russia). The already-obvious challenge he presents to American democracy is his endless, staggering, mind-numbing array of completely public assaults on communal decency, competent governance, and bedrock constitutional norms.
Barr's Letter Raises Plenty Of Questions About The Evidence Mueller Found Regarding Obstruction Of Justice
One of the biggest controversies to emerge from Barr's letter concerns the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr writes that Mueller "did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction." As for what exactly that means, Vox's Dara Lind has a good exploration of Mueller and Barr's possible intentions.
The critiques of Barr's "no obstruction" declaration, from both elected Democrats and Trump-skeptical legal experts, fall into two broad categories: questions about why Mueller didn't come to a conclusion about whether Trump could be charged with obstruction, and questions about whether it was appropriate for Barr to declare that Trump couldn't be…
Because of the tricky legal and factual questions Mueller grappled with on obstruction — not to mention the question of whether it is constitutional to indict a sitting president — it's possible that Mueller decided he should present the facts and leave it up to Congress to decide what to do with them. In that case, by stepping in and declaring that Trump shouldn't be charged, Barr would have warped Mueller's report. If this is true, though, it raises the question of whether Mueller's report explicitly says that the decision should be up to Congress (and whether, if it does say that, Barr can successfully prevent it from leaking).
Barr's Reasoning For Exonerating Trump On Obstruction Of Justice Is Legally Faulty
At Slate, David R. Lurie homes in on Barr's assertion that Trump could not have obstructed justice because "the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to election interference." Lurie points out that this is not the mainstream legal consensus on what obstruction of justice means.
According to Barr, because Mueller concluded that "the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to election interference," it would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the president had a "corrupt intent" to interfere with a grand jury or other official proceeding. Barr's argument thus suggests that if a subject of a criminal investigation avoids indictment for the underlying offense — whether it be insider trading, burglary, or election interference — he should not be charged with criminal liability for efforts to obstruct the investigation of the potential offense, either.
That is simply not the law. Proof of an underlying crime is not an element of an obstruction charge, and individuals are regularly charged with obstruction without facing criminal liability for an underlying offense. To take just one example, Martha Stewart was charged with obstructing an investigation into insider stock trading without facing criminal liability for her trades.
Congress Still Has The Power To Investigate Trump's Reported Wrongdoing
The Atlantic's Russell Berman argues that the Mueller investigation distracted the public — and, to an extent, lawmakers — from the many avenues Congress has to investigate Trump as part of its executive oversight function.
The president promotes his corporate brands regularly and in plain sight, while a hotel he owns mere blocks from the White House rakes in profits from patrons, including foreign leaders, with business before the federal government. Cabinet secretaries reportedly violate ethical guidelines and conflict-of-interest rules left and right by spending lavishly on office furniture and official travel, or by failing to properly divest their business holdings. The president's son-in-law obtains a security clearance over the objections of senior officials, and then—along with other top White House aides—conducts official government business using personal, unsecured devices and accounts. The president himself refuses to relinquish his personal cellphone, raising concerns that he is having conversations vulnerable to interception by hackers or foreign governments.
This entirely incomplete list of controversies during the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency is largely unrelated to the Russia probe. Some have been uncovered by journalists and, to varying extents, litigated in the courts or scrutinized by inspectors general. But what they have in common is that none have been the sole subject of a single hearing before Congress.
It Was A Mistake For Liberals To Focus On 'Collusion' Instead Of Structural Problems In Our Democracy
The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo is one of many critics chastising liberals who pinned their hopes on the Mueller investigation while ignoring "the structural weaknesses plaguing every corner of the American establishment," such as economic inequality, the perverse incentives of cable news and widespread voter suppression.
Like the Trump victory itself, Mr. Mueller's no-collusion conclusion should leave a mark. It lands like a rotten egg on a political and media establishment that had gone all-in on its own self-serving — and wrong — theory of the case. Before we embark on yet more investigations, it is worth examining, now, why the collusion fantasy proved so irresistible to so many of us — and what we all might have done with our time instead.
Here's my theory: Collusion was a seductive and convenient delusion. For many Americans, the simple truth that Mr. Trump really had won was too terrible to bear. The ease with which a racist, misogynist, serial con man had slipped past every gatekeeper in American life suggested something deeply sick at the core of our society.
The Mueller Investigation Was A Huge Story, And Barr's Letter Doesn't Change That
So was the Mueller investigation a nothingburger? Not according to The Nation's Joshua Holland, who rebuts claims from people like Glenn Greenwald that Barr's letter proves that the mainstream media was irrationally obsessed with Mueller's findings.
[T]he biggest problem with claims that the media focused too much on the Mueller probe is the premise itself. While Russiagate has led to a cottage industry of Twitter-famous "Resistance grifters" making outlandish claims that Trump — and people like Glenn Greenwald — are Putin's "puppets," real journalists did their jobs covering an objectively huge story.
It is bizarre to suggest that the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the President of the United States after he fired his FBI director and privately told two high-level Russian officials that he had "faced great pressure because of Russia" but that it had been "taken off" with Comey's dismissal is not a legitimately massive story. The same is true of allegations that Trump obstructed justice (something that William Barr had categorically ruled out charging him with before becoming AG and being read in on the investigation).