Washington, DC – United States Attorney General William Barr’s release of a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report did more to generate controversy than to settle the political crisis encircling Donald Trump‘s presidency.
Trump did not conspire with Russians to hack his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, according to the report, but the special counsel describes a long series of actions by Trump to interfere with the investigation that Congress will now have to assess as potential obstructions of justice. Mueller reached no determination on whether Trump obstructed justice, while Barr concluded Trump had not.
The report provided Democrats in the House of Representatives with a plan for potentially politically damaging investigations of the president and revealed a pattern of manipulation and lying by the White House over the past two years as the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election proceeded.
“Congress can’t just overlook the activities by the president to obstruct the investigation,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman who served during the Obama administration
“That doesn’t mean they have to impeach, but there has to be some kind of sanction or censure or else it gives licence to future presidents to behave the same way,” he told Al Jazeera.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to bring Mueller to testify before the panel.
On Friday, Nadler issued a subpoena for the full, unredacted report and its underlying evidence. He said the Department of Justice must comply with the subpoena by May 1.
Barr is also expected to testify before the Senate and House Judiciary committees on May 1 and 2.
The 448-page report concluded unequivocally that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election “in sweeping and systematic fashion”.
It details willful, but probably not illegal, communication between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over the release of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers.
“This kind of thing goes back to German efforts pre-World War II to infiltrate political parties. It goes back to post-World War II 1950s, when a Soviet spy tried to interfere. It’s just absolutely outrageous,” said Jack Hardin Young, a former counsel to the Democratic National Committee and an election law expert in Washington, DC.
“It should be a crime to have discussions of a campaign nature with agents of a foreign government,” he told Al Jazeera. “It should be a crime to share internal polling data about an American election with foreign governments. If you knowingly engaged with a Kremlin lobbyist, that should be a crime.”
Collusion vs conspiracy
In saying that there was no conspiracy between Trump, his 2016 campaign and Russian hackers, Barr and Mueller applied a strict interpretation of US law.
Mueller would have needed clear evidence that Trump or his associates reached an agreement in advance with Russian government agents to hack and release the Clinton emails in order for there to be a “conspiracy”.
But the report details dozens of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian go-betweens.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through the Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report said.
Mueller’s conclusion that Trump did not criminally conspire with the Russian government will not be viewed by Trump’s political opposition in Congress as excusing the president of wrongdoing, as Barr and Trump have repeatedly suggested.
“In some sense, the collusion happened out in the open and they didn’t need to seal the deal with an illicit agreement to do it,” Miller said.
“Both sides knew what the other was doing, what the other wanted and welcomed it,” he added. “That may not rise to the level of a crime, but it’s certainly appropriate to ask whether that’s acceptable from a president.”
Among the potential obstructions identified by Mueller, the report said that Trump “intended to encourage” former campaign manager Paul Manafort “to not cooperate” with Mueller by offering eventual pardons to Manafort and Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates. Trump’s personal counsel had told Manafort they were “going to take care of us”, according to the report.
Gates cooperated with the government while Manafort was prosecuted in two separate trials and is now serving a seven-year prison term. Manafort has also been charged by prosecutors in New York state.
“There’s an enormous amount here, specifically with regards to whether or not the president committed the federal crime of obstructing justice,” Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law told the Associated Press.
The report also said that Trump repeatedly urged White House Counsel Don McGahn to intervene with the Justice Department once the existence of the Russia investigation became public. Trump later fired FBI director James Comey because Comey refused to rule out that Trump personally was being investigated in the Russia probe.
Trump directed McGahn to fire Mueller, but McGahn refused for fear of being seen as triggering another “Saturday night massacre”, referring to a term used during US President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Mueller said in the report that he viewed Trump’s written answers to a questionnaire from investigators as “inadequate”. Trump had refused to sit for an in-person interview. Mueller considered issuing a subpoena to the president, but decided not to do so because it would have delayed the investigation, the report said.
For his part, Trump has repeatedly called the investigation a “witch-hunt” and “hoax”. His legal team declared the results a “total victory for the president”.
“The report underscores what we have argued from the very beginning – there was no collusion – there was no obstruction,” Trump’s legal team said on Thursday.
On Friday, the president tweeted, it was “not necessary for me to respond to statements made in the ‘report’ about me, some of which are total bull**** & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad). This was an illegally Started Hoax that never should have never happened.”
David Axelrod, a political adviser to former President Barack Obama, said in a tweet that “the report provides a conundrum for Congress by virtually inviting an impeachment probe around the obstruction issue.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leading committee chairmen have thus far ruled out impeachment proceedings, but have undertaken sprawling and potentially far-reaching investigations of Trump’s businesses, his presidency and his administration.
In a press conference on Thursday, Barr went out of his way to defend the president, adopting the narrative offered by Trump’s defence team that the president was rightfully outraged by the unfairness of having to confront the Russia investigation immediately after taking office.
Barr argued on behalf of Trump by saying the president’s motives in firing Comey and subsequent obstructions were devoid of criminal intent.
Mueller’s investigation did not address underlying counterintelligence concerns focused on whether Trump is, or was compromised by Russian agents, either financially or personally.
Several spinoff investigations of Trump’s business affairs and presidential actions are being conducted by other state and federal prosecutors.