ANALYSIS — The way GOP lawmakers reacted to Attorney General William Barr's letter to Congress on Sunday outlining the key findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s final Russia investigation report, you would think special counsel prosecutors went out of their way to prove Trump’s innocence on collusion and obstruction allegations.
But statements from Republican leaders in both the House and Senate — and in the White House — do not accurately reflect the direct quotes from Mueller’s report that Barr included in his letter.
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller wrote in his report, according to Barr.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller also wrote.
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A former longtime federal prosecutor from the Justice Department’s criminal division explained that that second statement — that Mueller’s report does not “exonerate” Trump — is boilerplate when prosecutors decide not to file charges against someone.
“As any prosecutor, you’re not looking to exonerate someone — you’re looking through the lens of whether you have sufficient evidence to make a charge,” the former DOJ prosecutor said. “Here, they’re saying, based on their very extensive investigation — 2,800 subpoenas is bonkers — they don’t have sufficient evidence that they believe reaches the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard.”
None of that precludes the possibility — not yet, at least — that Mueller’s team discovered at least some pieces of evidence that support the collusion theory, even if the synthesis of those pieces did not produce a clear enough picture to yield charges. We won’t know that until lawmakers get their hands on and publicize the full report and the underlying evidence.
But after 22 months investigating the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, Mueller apparently concluded that he did not have enough evidence to reasonably prosecute anyone affiliated with the campaign on such charges.
That’s a lot different from what the president and Republican leaders are saying: that Barr’s letter and Mueller’s report confirm no one on Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.
Take, for example, the headline of an email from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in which the Kentucky Republican’s office asserts, “Special Counsel Confirms No Collusion Between Trump Campaign and Russia.”
Or there’s House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said after Barr sent his letter to the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Sunday that “it is abundantly clear, without a shadow of a doubt, there was no collusion.”
Lawmakers have still not seen what surely amounts to thousands of pages of evidence underlying Mueller’s report, although such a document dump might eventually materialize. Pointing to Mueller’s equivocation on obstruction of justice allegations against the president, Democrats renewed their demands on Sunday that Barr hand over everything he received from the special counsel for congressional review and eventual publication.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler has said he will call Barr to testify before the committee in the “near future” to explain the “very concerning discrepancies and final decision making at the Justice Department” concerning its handling of the Mueller report.
The New York Democrat’s committee has launched a wide-ranging probe into Trump and his business and political associates on allegations of obstruction during the Mueller probe and corruption.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer released a joint statement Sunday urging Barr to hand over Mueller’s materials so Nadler and other committee chairs can pursue their ongoing inquiries.
“Congress requires the full report and the underlying documents so that the Committees can proceed with their independent work, including oversight and legislating to address any issues the Mueller report may raise,” the Democratic leaders said.
“The American people have a right to know,” they said.
Republicans will use their interpretation of the AG’s letter to characterize further Democratic efforts to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia as a fishing expedition by sore losers.
“Their dirty tricks have not ended,” said Trump 2020 campaign manager Evan Pascale after Barr’s letter dropped. “Even today Democrats have picked up the disgraceful mantle of investigating, obstructing, and destroying the will of the American people at any cost. They failed once and they will fail again.”
The truth could very well be, as Republicans have proclaimed, that Mueller and his team of prosecutors found not a single shred of evidence — circumstantial or otherwise — that supports the collusion theory.
“The special counsel’s investigation was long, thorough & conclusive: There was no collusion,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
But disproving or ruling out the possibility that someone committed a crime is the job of defense attorneys — not federal prosecutors or a special counsel.
“No prosecutor evaluating evidence to determine whether to prosecute a case or not is going to declare someone innocent or exonerate someone,” the former DOJ prosecutor said.
Mueller’s primary mission was to see if he could establish an actionable case — one that he could successfully prosecute — that anyone on the 2016 Trump campaign colluded with Russia to swing the election.
According to Barr’s letter, he could not.