(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump faces a climactic moment in his presidency this week with the impending release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, which could provide an enduring portrait of how people view him and his 2016 campaign.
The release of the almost 400-page document could help the president put two years of suspicion and risk from Mueller’s investigation behind him -- or ensure that controversy over the Russia probe hangs over his re-election bid.
Trump has already claimed “total exoneration” based on a four-page summary issued last month by William Barr, in which the attorney general said Mueller didn’t find that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. Barr also said that he decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Trump with obstructing justice even though Mueller had left that question open.
The narrative Barr established may yet be turned on its head when a far more detailed version of the report is given to Congress and made public -- and every page and paragraph is picked apart.
Barr told lawmakers that he plans to release the report this week, although he has said he is planning to withhold certain parts of it.
It’s a moment that will shape American politics and policy, as members of both parties pore over the pages for evidence that damns or vindicates the president. Barr has said he’ll blank out passages based on classified material, grand jury information and to avoid damaging “peripheral” figures who are private citizens, prompting House Democrats to authorize subpoenas for the full report and all the evidence behind it.
The report -- a product of 500 search warrants and 2,800 subpoenas over almost two years -- is expected to examine two fundamental questions: Did those around Trump conspire in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election? And did the president seek to obstruct justice by interfering in the investigation?
Mueller’s finding on collusion appeared unambiguous in Barr’s synopsis: “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.
But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that Mueller will recount damaging new details about contacts with Russian operatives or questionable motives for Trump’s friendly appraisal of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At least as much attention will be given to the question of whether Trump obstructed justice.
Mueller’s report “found evidence on both sides of the question” concerning obstruction and “leaves unresolved what the special counsel views as difficult issues of law,” according to Barr. He quoted Mueller as stating that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
One of the biggest questions Mueller may answer in his report is why he declined to make a decision on whether to find that the president obstructed justice.
Barr, who was appointed by Trump after he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, made his own decision on that question. 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.”
Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, told Barr at a hearing last week that his summary “seems to cherry-pick from the report to draw the most favorable conclusion possible for the president.”
The report will be the first public accounting by Mueller, who never said a word publicly during his investigation except through the criminal indictments his team issued. 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.
But Trump has had a running start on setting the narrative, especially for his loyal base of supporters.
In tweets and at campaign-style rallies, he has long called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” driven by Democrats and more recently an “attempted coup” by enemies guilty of treason. He’s tweeted that the findings as Barr presented them proves that news organizations “truly are the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party!”
Trump’s advisers have been preparing for any unfavorable findings by Mueller. The president’s legal team has put together a rebuttal to the chain of events they believe Mueller may describe and the legal arguments for why they don’t amount to obstruction of justice.
While Democrats have vowed to press ahead with their investigations of Trump and his administration, a Mueller report that doesn’t provide explosive new information may undercut demands from the party’s most liberal members to move toward impeaching the president. Leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, aware that they probably wouldn’t have the votes in the Republican-led Senate to remove Trump from office, have discouraged the impeachment talk.
While a fight over access to Mueller’s full report and evidence seems inevitable, Democrats will have to decide at some point whether to turn most of their attention to issues voters may find more relevant to their lives -- including health care and the economy.
--With assistance from Chris Strohm.
To contact the reporter on this story: Shannon Pettypiece in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Larry Liebert
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