WASHINGTON – Democrats have seized on an unusual wrinkle in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump to accuse the Justice Department of bias, while Republicans suggest the president is owed an apology.
Attorney General William Barr issued a four-page letter Sunday that detailed the findings from Mueller’s investigation of the president and Russian interference in the 2016 election. After a nearly two years, Mueller’s findings seemed to dispel the cloud of conspiracy that has hung over the administration since its inception. But by delivering caveats alongside conclusions, the closing of the Mueller investigation opens the door to fiercer political fights over the president’s judgment and power.
The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tweeted overnight that the letter marked a turning point for the country. “If Democrats who went too far in their partisan and false claims of collusion can step back and admit their mistakes, we can heal,” he said.
Giuliani also accused cable news channels of having overreacted to the investigation, and suggested Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Inteligence Committee, and other Democrats should apologize “for their now false claims of collusion.”
Democrats accused Barr of allowing bias influence the outcome, alluding to past opinion pieces and a private memo he wrote before becoming attorney general in which he criticized aspects of the special counsel investigation.
Barr’s letter “raises as many questions as it answers,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a joint statement issued Sunday. “Given Mr. Barr’s public record of bias against the Special Counsel’s inquiry, he is not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.”
Hours before the report’s release, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declared to CNN: “Obviously, we know there was some collusion.” After the report’s release, Nadler tweeted he wanted Barr to quickly testify before Congress to explain what the lawmaker called “very concerning discrepancies and final decision-making at the Justice Department following the Special Counsel report.”
Trump immediately declared he had been cleared of all wrongdoing.
“After a long look, after a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side, where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened for our country, it was just announced there was no collusion with Russia,” the president said at a Florida airport, declaring the findings “a complete and total exoneration.”
Barr’s written summary declared: “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The letter noted that Mueller’s probe said no such conspiracy was found “despite multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” Barr said he and Justice Department officials separately determined there was insufficient evidence to make an obstruction accusation against the president – though Mueller was not definitive on that point.
“The Special Counsel . . . did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” Barr’s letter to lawmakers states.
“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’,” the letter says, signaling that Mueller’s team apparently struggled with the issue.
“For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report 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,” the letter says.
Mueller’s decision to forgo a conclusion as to whether the president tried to obstruct justice struck a discordant note with current and former law enforcement officials, who pointed out that was one of the primary reasons for appointing a special counsel.
“I think courageous people have the courage to make decisions, and those who don’t punt decisions,” said George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration with Mueller and Barr.
Since his appointment in May 2017 as special counsel, Mueller has wrestled with the question of whether the president attempted to obstruct justice once the FBI began investigating those close to him. Current and former White House officials who were questioned by Mueller’s investigators were repeatedly asked about how the president spoke of the investigation behind closed doors, and whether he sought to replace senior Justice Department officials to stymie the probe, according to people familiar with the interviews.
Mueller “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” on the question of obstruction, Barr wrote, so the attorney general and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided.
Rosenstein and Barr “concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense. Our determination was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president,” Barr wrote.
Barr further explained that decision by writing “the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent, each of which, under the Department’s principles of federal prosecution guiding charging decisions, would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction of justice offense.”
Barr’s letter does not make clear whether Mueller asked Barr and Rosenstein to make a final determination on the question of obstruction.
“Over the course of the investigation, the Special Counsel’s office engaged in discussions with certain Department officials regarding many of the legal and factual matters at issue in the Special Counsel’s obstruction investigation,” it says.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
Trump’s lawyers seized on a portion of the letter that said Mueller recognized “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” That is not necessary to charge the crime of obstruction, Barr noted, but he added, “the absence of such evidence bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction.”
Barr said the Mueller report appears to contain grand jury material that is barred by law from being released, and that he will work with Mueller to identify which portions those may be, as well as any portions whose public release might compromise ongoing investigations.
The attorney general said his “goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Department policies.”
The special counsel’s work led to criminal charges against 34 people, including six former Trump associates and advisers.