Mueller report: Investigation found no evidence Trump conspired with Russia, leaves obstruction question open

Kevin Johnson and Bart Jansen and Kristine Phillips

WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation did not find evidence that President Donald Trump or members of his campaign conspired with Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election, delivering a boost to the president in a case that has shadowed his administration since its first days.

But the special counsel's report leaves "unresolved whether the president's actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction," Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Congress delivered Sunday.

 "While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him" on whether he obstructed justice, Mueller said in the report, according to Barr's four-page summary. 

Because the special counsel did not reach a conclusion on obstruction, Barr wrote that the ultimate decision was left to him, adding that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein determined that Trump's conduct did not constitute a crime.

Trump declared the findings a "complete and total exoneration" of him.

"It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it's a shame that your president has had to go through this," Trump said Sunday before returning to Washington from Florida, where he stayed all weekend.

Trump's lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, characterized the findings as "total vindication of the president."

Barr told lawmakers that Mueller's report described two efforts by Russia to interfere in the presidential election that put Trump in office. One was a hacking operation that targeted Democratic political organizations; the other was a "disinformation and social media" effort to sow discord.

Mueller's investigation concluded that Trump's campaign received "multiple offers" of assistance from people linked to Russia. 

The central question of Mueller's investigation was to answer whether Trump or anyone in his campaign collaborated in those efforts. 

Barr said Mueller concluded that neither Trump nor other Americans  joined those Russian conspiracies. The evidence Mueller's team gathered "does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference," Barr's letter says.

Read: Mueller report: Read AG William Barr's summary of the Russia investigation

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That determination was part of Barr's decision that the president could not be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. A Justice official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Barr did not consult with Mueller while preparing the summary letter. 

Barr indicated that his determination that Trump’s conduct did not constitute obstruction was made without regard to the constitutional considerations of whether a sitting president can be prosecuted. Long-standing Justice Department guidelines state that a president cannot be charged while in office.

The attorney general's obstruction conclusions are likely to cast a new spotlight on Barr, who had written a memo critical of Mueller’s obstruction inquiry before he was nominated by Trump to succeed Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department. In the 2018 memo, which he sent to White House lawyers and was a major focus of inquiry at his confirmation hearing, Barr wrote that Mueller “should not be permitted to demand that the President submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction.”

Ultimately, Trump did not submit to an interview. Instead, he provided written answers to questions provided by the special counsel.  

Democrats in the House and Senate signaled that they wanted to know far more about the facts Mueller gathered, and Barr's conclusion that Trump had not committed obstruction.

"Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York. "The fact that special counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay.  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."

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers would summon Barr to testify about "very concerning discrepancies and final decision making" in his letter.
 

The delivery of Mueller's findings ends a weekend of anticipation in Washington as lawmakers and the White House awaited the findings of an inquiry that shadowed the first two years of Trump's presidency and could shape its future. 

Mueller's findings seemed destined to fuel a highly political fight unfolding against the backdrop of a presidential campaign – in which a crowded field of Democrats vies to unseat a president who has been tailed by criminal investigations almost since he took office. Although the summary of Mueller's findings lifted a cloud that towered over Trump's presidency, the special counsel's inquiry produced a cascade of other criminal investigations targeting people around Trump, which have not concluded.

Barr's summary described a massive investigation by Mueller's staff of 19 lawyers. The special counsel's office issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants and interviewed about 500 witnesses. Mueller's investigators obtained dozens of communication records and requests to foreign governments for evidence, the letter states.

What Barr delivered Sunday is a summary of Mueller's findings and his conclusions about whether the facts the special counsel gathered were sufficient to prove obstruction.

How much of the report Barr is willing to disclose remains unclear. Barr warned that he might withhold some aspects of Mueller's report because it was based on grand jury testimony, which is supposed to remain secret. He said other parts of the report could contain information relevant to "other ongoing matters" that Mueller referred to prosecutors elsewhere in the Justice Department.

That decision appeared unlikely to satisfy congressional Democrats, who said they would press for access to the complete report.

Mueller's report, delivered Friday to Barr, signaled the end of an investigation secretly launched in the months before Trump was elected, when the FBI began gathering clues that made them suspicious of aides to Trump's campaign. The inquiry mushroomed to include whether the campaign coordinated with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and whether the president attempted to obstruct the investigation. 

The inquiry revealed an extensive Russian intelligence operation that used hacking, stolen documents and phony social media campaigns to sow discord in U.S. politics and support Trump's campaign for the presidency.

It disclosed that some of Trump's aides worked eagerly to benefit from that operation, seeking damaging information from Russians even as Trump sought business in the country. At least a half dozen of Trump's aides, who were charged in the investigation, lied to Congress, federal investigators and the public to downplay those connections. 

The investigation did not result in charges that anyone associated with Trump coordinated with the Russians, and a Justice Department official said Mueller's report did not recommend that anyone else be indicted. 

Investigation Ends: Special counsel Robert Mueller delivers report marking end of investigation into Trump's campaign, Russia

Why they Lied: Mueller report: Why so many of President Donald Trump's aides lied to protect him in Russia investigations

Mueller's Targets: Faces of those charged in the Mueller inquiry

In the 22 months since he was appointed, Mueller has brought charges against more than two dozen alleged Russian operatives and a succession of aides and advisers to Trump, including his personal lawyer, national security adviser and former campaign chairman. Those charges, detailed in hundreds of pages of court filings, offered a public preview of the evidence investigators uncovered. 

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and his wife Ann, walk past the White House, to St. John's Episcopal Church for morning services on Sunday, March 24, 2019 in Washington. Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation with no new charges, ending the probe that has cast a dark shadow over Donald Trump's presidency.

Lawmakers in both parties want the bulk of Mueller's evidence released. Republicans seek to vindicate the president. Democrats want to bolster investigations into the Trump administration and his namesake business. Lawmakers said they want to see not just Mueller's report but also the evidence he gathered during his investigation. 

In all, Mueller's investigation led to the indictment of 34 people and three companies on scores of charges, including dozens of Russian nationals who were charged with hacking Democratic computers and spreading disinformation during the campaign. 

Trump aides were convicted of lying to Congress or federal investigators, campaign-finance violations, tax evasion and bank fraud. High-profile convicts included Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer, and Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser and a member of his campaign staff. Trump's onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted in one case and pleaded guilty in another. Longtime political adviser Roger Stone  faces trial in November for allegedly lying to Congress about his interactions with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which prosecutors said served as a conduit for Russia to distribute stolen emails. 

The investigation did not charge anyone on the campaign with cooperating with Russians to influence the election.

For part of the weekend, Trump quietly awaited Mueller's findings at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, neither commenting nor tweeting for much of Friday and Saturday.

Trump has dismissed the investigation as a "hoax" and a "witch hunt" led by political opponents in the Justice Department and the FBI. Among its most immediate consequences was a rift between the president and his appointees inside the Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was ousted in November after he recused himself from the inquiry.

Contributing: Eliza Collins

More: Read Attorney General Barr's letter to Congress announcing end of Mueller's Russia inquiry

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mueller report: Investigation found no evidence Trump conspired with Russia, leaves obstruction question open