(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General William Barr handed Donald Trump the biggest political victory of his presidency with an assessment that there was no collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign and that there wasn’t enough evidence to find he obstructed justice.
Trump celebrated Sunday’s news with relish, tweeting “Complete and Total EXONERATION” and telling reporters that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month inquiry into Russian interference was “an illegal takedown that failed.”
Yet the political fight over Mueller’s findings is far from over, with top Democrats demanding the release of his complete report -- and all the evidence he compiled -- and threatening a subpoena fight that could end up in the Supreme Court.
“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,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement. “The American people have a right to know.”
The finding on collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign was unambiguous.
“The Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” Barr said in a four-page letter to Congress on Sunday.
But the determination on whether Trump sought to obstruct justice was less clear-cut.
Mueller’s still-secret “report found evidence on both sides of the question” concerning obstruction and “leaves unresolved what the special counsel views as difficult issues of law,” Barr wrote. He quoted Mueller as saying, “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Nonetheless, Barr, who was appointed by Trump after he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, went further. He said in his letter that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “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.”
Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a tweet, “In light of the very concerning discrepancies and final decision making at the Justice Department following the Special Counsel report, where Mueller did not exonerate the President, we will be calling Attorney General Barr in to testify.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said that “months ahead of his nomination, Barr wrote a 19-page memo concluding the president couldn’t commit obstruction, so it’s no surprise he reached the same conclusion now.”
“The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, inaccurately describing Mueller’s finding on obstruction. “Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction. The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States.”
Barr issued his summary of Mueller’s conclusions -- and his conclusion with Rosenstein that there wasn’t enough evidence of obstruction of justice -- just two days after receiving Mueller’s final report. The special counsel wasn’t consulted on the letter that included the judgment on obstruction, according to a Justice Department official.
It was the close of a politically explosive investigation that Trump routinely dismissed as a “witch hunt.”
The White House wasn’t involved in any review or discussion of the Mueller report and didn’t get a look at Barr’s summary ahead of time, according to a Justice Department official.
It’s sure to be only the beginning of months of fighting in Congress over how much should be disclosed from Mueller’s report. Barr said he’ll consult with Mueller and Rosenstein to determine what other information can be released to Congress and the public.
Nothing in the Justice Department’s regulations on special counsels would prevent Barr from releasing Mueller’s report once certain material is redacted, including classified matters and information about continuing law enforcement operations. But Barr has indicated he’s likely to stop well short of releasing the full report, citing the department’s policies against publicly criticizing someone who isn’t indicted and against indicting a sitting president.
In a letter on Friday to leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, Barr said, “I remain committed to as much transparency as possible, and I will keep you informed as to the status of my review.”
Read Barr’s letter to Congress on the Mueller probe
The Democratic candidates who seek to replace Trump in 2020 joined lawmakers in demanding the full release of the report.
Some Trump allies said the outcome amounted to vindication much like their victory on election night in 2016, with Trump once again overcoming what they regard as an attempt by Democrats to stop him. Barr’s letter also alleviated some fear among Trump’s aides that Mueller’s findings would give Democrats solid ammunition to seek the president’s impeachment.
Before completing his probe, Mueller helped secure guilty pleas from five people involved in Trump’s presidential campaign -- including his campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who became his first national security adviser -- though none admitted to conspiring with Russian operatives. He also indicted more than two dozen Russian hackers and military intelligence officers.
While Mueller didn’t seek an indictment of Trump or members of his family, they’re not necessarily in the clear.
Trump faces continuing risk from other investigations, with federal prosecutors in New York looking into his company, presidential campaign and inaugural committee. Mueller has been sharing some matters and handing off others to U.S. attorneys’ offices in Manhattan; Alexandria, Virginia; and Washington, as well as the Justice Department’s national security division. That may keep alive cases that touch on Trump’s personal and business affairs.
Through a series of indictments, Mueller laid out a picture of operatives and hackers tied to Russian intelligence agencies doing all they could to help put Trump in the White House even as other Russian officials had scores of contacts with people tied to Trump’s campaign.
Trump and his lawyers have indicated that before any details from Mueller’s findings are made public they want to see anything that would disclose the president’s private communications. They say they want to preserve their right to assert executive privilege, the doctrine that a president has the right to candid and private advice.
Congressional Democrats -- who now control the House -- say they want broad disclosure of Mueller’s investigative work, citing the earlier success of Republicans in pressuring the Justice Department to release details they said showed anti-Trump bias in the FBI.
House committee chairmen also are pursuing an array of inquiries into the president, from his family’s business dealings with Deutsche Bank to payoffs to women who alleged affairs with the president to White House officials who have pursued the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
Mueller, a former FBI director, was appointed in May 2017 to conduct one of the most consequential investigations in U.S. history. He hasn’t spoken a word in public since then, leaving it to the indictments he’s filed to build his case.
Beyond Russia’s election meddling -- which U.S. intelligence agencies found was aimed at hurting Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately at helping Trump win -- Mueller investigated possible collusion in the operation and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in what the president has regularly denounced as a “witch hunt.”
In particular, Mueller investigated Trump’s effort to get then-FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into Flynn, the former national security adviser. Mueller also investigated whether Trump’s decision to fire Comey in May 2017 constituted obstruction of justice.
Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, appointed Mueller as special counsel days after Comey’s firing.
Mueller indicted and convicted Manafort, the former campaign chairman, for a series of financial crimes, and he’s been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. He also secured guilty pleas and cooperation agreements from Flynn, Trump’s deputy campaign chairman Richard Gates, campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
Mueller’s investigation cost about $25 million from his appointment in May 2017 through September 2018, according to figures provided by the Justice Department in December.
With the probe concluded, Russia urged Trump to seize the opportunity to reset relations. “There’s a chance to renew much in our relations, but the question is whether Trump will take the risk,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international relations committee in the upper house of parliament, wrote Monday on Facebook.
A Kremlin spokesman said there’s no validity to continued accusations that Russia meddled in the U.S. election campaign.
(Updates with Russian reaction in the penultimate paragraph.)
To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at email@example.com;Shannon Pettypiece in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Billy House in Washington at email@example.com;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Elizabeth Wasserman, Joshua Gallu
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.