Parsing Barr’s Letter on the Mueller Probe

Six Takeaways
Robert Mueller (Wikimedia Commons)

That special counsel Robert Mueller has not resolved all the issues surrounding President Trump is disappointing many of the president’s foes, but it’s not surprising. Mueller is an honorable man. He is not a bomb thrower. He always defined his role narrowly. All of Trump’s attacks on Mueller (and he continued assailing the probe on Sunday night) distracted from the fact that Mueller was not nearly as aggressive as he might have been—for example, by subpoenaing the president.

At this point, six things seem obvious:

First, the full Mueller report must be released as quickly as possible. The letter from Attorney General William Barr makes clear that on the charge of obstruction of justice, Mueller offers material on both sides of the question. Barr quoted Mueller this way: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” So what exactly did Mueller find? The public and Congress need to know.

Second, Barr says he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “have 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.” The Mueller probe spanned 675 days. It took Barr and Rosenstein just two days to let the president off the hook. How did they decide so quickly? The words “rush to judgment” come to mind. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would call Barr to testify. He must.

Nothing Mueller is quoted as saying justifies pretending that there is nothing left to probe.

Third, on the issue of Russian collusion, there is an odd discrepancy between the language Barr uses and what he quotes the report as saying. Barr says: “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” He quotes Mueller as saying: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The words “did not find” do not strike me as the same as “did not establish.” Perhaps I am parsing, but these are legal matters and that word “establish” raises interesting questions. What did Mueller find? Again, this is an argument for making the whole report public quickly.

Fourth, Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable. Republican efforts to shut down any further inquiry should be laughed away. I pointed out in a recent column that it would have been far better if Congress had been investigating Trump simultaneously with Mueller, which is what happened in Watergate. But just because House Republicans ignored their responsibilities for oversight when they controlled the House doesn’t mean Democrats should do the same. As I argued, “What brought Nixon down were the tapes of his White House conversations orchestrating the coverup. And we learned of the tapes when his aide Alexander Butterfield revealed their existence, first to Senate staffers and then at an open hearing. Congress, not the special prosecutor, forced Nixon to resign.” Nothing Mueller is quoted as saying justifies pretending that there is nothing left to probe. And, yes, there are still investigations into Trump that will continue in the offices of U.S. attorneys. Those inquiries must be protected.

Fifth, Mueller should testify before Congress, too. It’s important for the public to understand how and why he made the judgments he did during his investigation.

Sixth, we have no idea right now if material will emerge over the coming months that will justify impeachment. Impeachment is, in any event, a last resort. In the meantime, everything we have learned about Trump from Mueller’s inquiry and from media reports suggests potential corruption, conflicts of interest and a leader who has surrounded himself with shady figures against whom Mueller secured either convictions, indictments or plea deals. The case against Trump is strong. If this case needs to be argued in the political sphere, so be it. The 2020 election is 20 months away.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).

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