Attorney General William Barr delivered his summary of Robert Mueller’s investigation to Congress, clearing the President of collusion. But CNN’s commentators say there’s more to it than that. The views expressed in this commentary are theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Shan Wu: Mueller is not a savior, demon or avenger
The conclusion of the Mueller probe, via William Barr’s summary, forces us as a country to confront our over-reliance upon the criminal justice system to solve societal problems. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have looked to Mueller for a solution to the legion of troubling issues raised by the Trump administration. Mostly dependent upon one’s politics, Mueller himself is viewed as savior, demon or avenger. Of course, he and the criminal justice system itself are none of those, and beliefs to the contrary are the tail wagging the dog.
The Barr summary breaks down the Mueller investigation into two areas: Russian collusion and obstruction of justice. While most of the witnesses and evidence Mueller relied upon remain unknown, the Barr summary quotes Mueller as stating that the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Barr does not explain what Mueller meant by “establish” or what legal standard he may have used, but he does confirm that Russia sought to interfere with our election and made “multiple offers to assist the Trump campaign” through intermediaries. And we know the Trump campaign never reported those offers.
Those failures and potentially the campaign and candidate’s apparent willingness to explore those offers do not have to be charged as crimes to be anathema to us. So, too, should the President’s obvious attraction to dictators, evidence that he lied to the American people about his interest in doing business in Russia, and, such allegations like one from a Russian-born business associate of Trump – to offer Vladimir Putin a $50 million dollar apartment for free as a marketing ploy. (The President’s lawyer denied that Trump was involved with this.)
On obstruction of justice, Barr’s summary raises more questions than it answers since it includes the troubling quote from Mueller that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” A statement of non-exoneration is enormously damning coming from the taciturn Mueller, and the President’s actions that led to the concerns about obstruction, many of them public, again demonstrate deeply troubling conduct.
In the course of Mueller’s probe, he uncovered and caused to be uncovered many disturbing issues about the President, his inner circle and the leadership of our country. Those issues, alarming as they may be are neither Mueller’s nor the criminal justice system’s responsibility to address. It is our job to address them and fix them. We are the dog.
Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst who represents college students. He is a member of the Sarah Lawrence College Board of Trustees. His Twitter handle is @ShanlonWu.
Alice Stewart: After nearly two years, it’s time to move on
The principal conclusions of Attorney General William Barr will no doubt send Democrats back into a fetal position reminiscent of the 2016 election. After two years of dogged determination to find wrongdoing, it’s time for Democrats to accept three uncomfortable truths: no collusion, no obstruction and still no Hillary Clinton in the White House.
Barr’s review of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report makes it clear that neither President Donald Trump nor members of his team conspired with Russia to sway the outcome of the 2016 election. Barr further concludes that he found insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
As expected, Democrats have already begun the full-scale pushback. Democrat Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler plans to summon Barr before his panel, claiming he is “very concerned about the even-handedness” of the review.
And it makes sense, their agenda has always been to bring down Trump and reclaim power in the process. For almost two years, Democrats threatened to impeach Trump if he dared fire Mueller.
As such, Mueller was a paragon of virtue – until today. He’s gone from hero to zero in many of their eyes. In fact, to some, Mueller may even be viewed as a co-conspirator in the ongoing plot to deny Clinton her rightful place in the Oval Office.
As for Republicans, the Mueller findings will further galvanize the Trump base. This is the “I told you so” they have been looking for. They view this exactly how Trump presented it – as “an illegal takedown that failed.”
But the key demographic to watch out for are Independents, who may now have a negative view of Democrats, should they pursue further investigations – and even impeachment – in light of Mueller’s findings.
From a political standpoint, everyone needs to accept the findings and turn their focus to 2020. Democrats, in particular, would be wise to admit this case is closed and move on. Otherwise, voters will realize the only agenda they have is to be anti-Trump – and that’s not a winning platform.
Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President.
Laura Coates: Mueller’s resounding ‘maybe’ is a disservice
A four-page summation of a two-year investigation into whether the American people had the opportunity to choose their own President is a disservice to the American people.
And it is even more acute when you consider that Special Counsel Robert Mueller punted the question of whether the head of the executive branch – the very branch constitutionally charged with enforcing the laws of this country – obstructed justice to Attorney General William Barr. The disservice becomes unimaginable when it leaves the most pertinent question lingering: Did the President of the United States actually commit a crime?
Without more context, Mueller’s assessment that the report neither condemns nor exonerates him on the issue of obstruction appears to border on dereliction of duty precisely because he was tasked, in part, with investigating that very question. Mueller’s answer appears to be a resounding and wholly unsatisfying “maybe” that simultaneously acts as both a Sword of Damocles over President Donald Trump and the electorate’s belief in the notion that no one is above the law.
Mueller was under no explicit deadline. If he needed more time to answer the question, he should have taken it. If he was irredeemably stonewalled, such that the pursuit itself was an exercise in futility, he should have revealed that. If the President is indeed fully exonerated, he should have stated that. This is not the time to be cheeky.
Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant US attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. She is the host of “The Laura Coates Show” on SiriusXM. Follow her @thelauracoates.
Asha Rangappa: We need Mueller’s words on the counterintelligence probe
One thing is clear from Attorney General William Barr’s memo on the principal conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged links and coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia: The special counsel investigated this matter as thoroughly and objectively as anyone could, and we should respect the findings of his two-year effort.
That means, however, that Congress and the American public should evaluate Mueller’s findings based on his own words, and not through the filter of President Trump’s appointee, Barr.
Two reasons for this: First, on the question of collusion, Barr makes clear that Mueller found insuffcient evidence of “conspiracy,” or “coordination,” both defined in criminal law terms. This is important, because Mueller was also conducting a counterintelligence investigation.
Activities that pose a national security threat may not run afoul of the law, but may still pose a concern that the subject is under the influence of a foreign adversary. Given that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump himself – which became part of Mueller’s probe – understanding the conclusions on this side of the investigation are as important as the criminal findings.
Second, Barr made a decision on the crime of obstruction – one on which Mueller himself said the evidence did not “completely exonerate” the President – based in part on the fact that there was no evidence of an underlying criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia. According to Barr, this would mean that Trump could not have had a motive to obstruct the investigation. However, without knowing the counterintelligence findings – namely, if there are any personal interests in Russia or leverage that Russia might have over Trump – the President’s motives cannot be fully established.
Until the full narrative of what was uncovered in the counterintelligence probe into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election is revealed, based on Mueller’s complete findings, Barr’s memo does little to resolve the overarching question of whether Trump is in a position to uphold his oath to protect and defend the interests of the United States.
Asha Rangappa is a senior lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is a former special agent in the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Follow her @AshaRangappa
Jennifer Rodgers: Special Counsel’s call on obstruction is strange
The conclusion of the Barr summary report that there was no conspiracy or coordination with Russia on election interference was not unexpected; it has long seemed that we would have seen charges much earlier if the evidence supported them.
I thought the much stranger part of the report was about obstruction. Attorney General William Barr makes clear that Robert Mueller did not decide whether obstruction was chargeable on the evidence he gathered, but deferred that decision – which appears to have been a close one – to Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
It’s not a surprise that Trump’s handpicked Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General decided that the standards for obstruction were not met. (Barr basically foreshadowed this for us back when he wrote his unsolicited legal opinion on obstruction to the President a year ago.)
What is a surprise is Mueller not making the decision. There are two reasons why Mueller was the person best positioned to make this call.
First, he is independent. He was appointed precisely because the Department of Justice had a conflict of interest in investigating the President. It’s written right into the special counsel regulations as one of the criteria for appointment.
Second, no one in the world knows the facts of this investigation better that Mueller. It was Mueller’s job under the regulations to conduct all of the investigative and prosecutorial work on this matter, and he should have been the one to decide whether sufficient evidence existed for prosecution.
I have no idea why he failed to carry out that responsibility, but I suspect I’m not the only one (I’m looking at you, Congress) who wants to know.
Jennifer Rodgers is a CNN legal analyst, a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School and a former federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Errol Louis: Barr’s letter helps Trump, for now
To the surprise of nobody, President Trump and his advisers are calling the Mueller report a “total and complete exoneration” of the President, although the report states the exact opposite.
The Trump White House, like the President himself, likes to state and repeat whatever party line sounds best, without regard to whether what they are saying is obviously and demonstrably false.
To put it another way: Trump has always and only treated the fact of Russian interference in the 2016 elections as a political public relations exercise. Fortunately, the public and many members of Congress are insisting on a higher standard of conduct.
In a letter to Congress summarizing the still-unseen report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Attorney General William Barr cites a direct line from the report: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
According to Barr, Mueller also “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct [of President Trump] constituted obstruction.”
To anybody but a dyed-in-the-wool Trump partisan, those conclusions are the opposite of “total and complete exoneration.”
To be sure, Barr’s letter is welcome news to Team Trump. It summarizes Mueller’s report in a way that does not conclude the President, personally, is a criminal. That is a welcome clarification, given the guilty pleas and looming prison sentences for several of Trump’s top aides, including his campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, National Security Adviser and personal attorney.
But by any traditional measure, it is a national scandal that Mueller’s exhaustive investigation – one that has resulted in multiple indictments, guilty pleas and prison sentences – found that the President of the United States may have committed crimes and then obstructed efforts to discover those crimes.
And by declining to draw a conclusion on possible obstruction of justice, the Mueller report hands the issue to Congress – specifically, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives – to determine whether obstruction took place. If the answer to that question is “yes,” then House leaders will be under tremendous public pressure to start impeachment proceedings against Trump.
There will also be a hard-fought battle to release the entire Mueller report, which Barr strongly suggests will include damning and embarrassing facts and analysis about the behavior of Trump and his aides. (He wrote: “The report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.”)
Although Barr says some parts of the Mueller report must remain confidential to protect grand jury secrecy in ongoing prosecutions, there is a good chance that members of Congress and other public figures will demand release of the full report, and might well leak it to the press in any event.
The release of Barr’s letter improves the President’s legal position slightly in the short term; he’s not going to be indicted anytime soon. But Trump’s political position, especially on impeachment, remains shaky. Just how precarious, we have yet to discover.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Scott Jennings: Jeff Sessions’s decision looks pretty good today
Now that the collusion narrative around Trump is destroyed, I’m thinking about three things: Adam Schiff, Jeff Sessions, and the media.
Adam Schiff. The House Intelligence Committee Chairman beclowned himself by claiming to possess direct evidence of collusion. Mueller exposed Schiff as a fraud; for the good of the country, Schiff should resign. No one who was so wrong or dishonest should be in the US House, let alone lead one of the most important committees.
The Media. The desire for this to be true clouded the judgment of a great many reporters, pundits, and analysts, who took it as an article of faith that Mueller would eventually end the Trump presidency. How did an entire industry miss the boat on this? The attempt to wish and speculate a narrative into reality ran headlong into the truth, and the aftermath will be an ugly increase in media distrust and further evidence to Republicans that bias exists in virtually every newsroom.
Jeff Sessions. The former attorney general looks pretty good today. His decision to recuse himself and weather Trump’s anger was correct, as it put the collusion investigation into the hands of someone everyone agreed was independent and unimpeachable – Mueller. Had Sessions not done that, there would be allegations of a tainted outcome. Sessions set a good example for future AG’s and allowed for an unspoiled report that truly outlines what the Russians did to our democracy and, hopefully, how to stop them in the future.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Josh Campbell: We’re being asked to not believe our ears and eyes
Nearly one hour after the release of a mostly-favorable summary of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, the President took to the microphones and blatantly misled the American people about what the investigation found.
“It was a complete and total exoneration,” Trump said Sunday before boarding Air Force One for Washington.
His claim was amplified by Vice President Michael Pence, who described the findings as “total vindication.”
In fact, while Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress does indeed rule out Russian collusion on the part of the President and his campaign – and all Americans should be breathing a sigh of relief at this finding – the special counsel’s conclusions are anything but a “total exoneration” of Trump. As the letter explicitly states, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Many will likely remain unsatisfied by Barr’s findings on the issue of obstruction of justice, particularly as it is related to the firing of my former boss, then-FBI Director James Comey. After Comey refused the President’s alleged request to go easy on fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump terminated the person leading the investigation into his campaign associates. Trump has denied that the alleged request was made.
Although the President and Justice Department leadership claimed Comey was fired over his mishandling of the FBI’s Hillary Clinton email server investigation, Trump soon admitted in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he was thinking of “this Russia thing,” when he fired Comey.
Trump has also engaged in an endless campaign of assault against Mueller and his investigators, routinely billing them as corrupt criminals leading a “witch hunt” to end his presidency. He has sought to throw sand into the gears of justice at every turn.
According to the Attorney General’s letter on Sunday, for reasons unknown Mueller did not draw a conclusion on the issue of obstruction but left that up to the DOJ. Barr then indicated that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the determination that evidence developed during the course of Mueller’s work was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Accepting the fact that Trump did not collude with Russia is easy because that determination was based on an exhaustive investigation conducted largely in secret by Mueller and his team.
However, being asked to believe the President did not actively seek to obstruct justice is much more difficult to accept, simply because of everything we have all witnessed from this President with our own eyes and ears.
Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst covering national security issues. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI, special assistant to the bureau’s director, including Jim Comey, and is writing a book on recent attempts by elected officials to undermine the rule of law. Follow him on Twitter @joshscampbell.
Samantha Vinograd: Barr left out key answer on Trump and Russia
William Barr’s summary on the Special Counsel’s main conclusions is inconclusive on the question of whether the President or members of his team were (or are) counterintelligence risks.
Barr’s letter indicates no knowing conspiracy or coordination with Russia by the President or members of his campaign during Russia’s attack on our 2016 elections. That does not address whether, for example, Putin was able to use these individuals as unknowing or unwitting assets (it’s worth noting Barr’s language: that these individuals did not “knowingly coordinate” with the information warfare efforts of the Internet Research Agency – the notorious Russian “troll farm”). Putin’s ability to manipulate these individuals to serve his own purposes is an open question.
Also, because the Special Counsel investigation was limited in scope, it does not address whether there are ongoing counterintelligence concerns related to the President or his associates. We don’t know if the counterintelligence investigation into President Trump has concluded along with the Special Counsel investigation or if it has been handed off to other parts of the Department of Justice.
What is clear is that President Putin considered candidate Trump an asset to Russia – the intelligence community assessed that Putin developed a clear preference for then-candidate Trump and his stated policy to work with Russia.
What is also clear is that the President continues to do and say things that help Russia’s attack, including his response to Barr’s summary of conclusions, in which he discredited US law enforcement, spread divisions, and conspiracy theories. He failed to condemn Russia even once during his remarks.
Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd.
The entry by Asha Rangappa has been updated to correct her description of the evidence found by Mueller for “conspiracy” or “coordination.”