Like most people, I’d hoped the report of special counsel Robert Mueller would provide a reasonably clear answer to questions about whether Donald Trump “colluded” with Russians interfering with the 2016 election or committed obstruction of justice.
It didn’t — at least on the question of obstruction and at least based on what little we know about the report from U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary letter to congressional leadership. He’s promised to release the full report — minus any grand jury testimony or information which might compromise methods and sources.
The report clears Trump of suspicions he or his campaign conspired with Russians to tilt the 2016 election, according to Barr’s summary. But the same summary also quotes Mueller as saying the report does not accuse Trump of any crime related to obstruction — but neither does it exonerate him.
So those who are genuinely interested in what actual evidence Mueller discovered will have to wait a while longer — although Barr, who of course works for Trump and before that publicly questioned the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation, concluded there isn’t evidence of obstruction.
Trump claims “complete and total exoneration,” an exaggerated claim but one which any president in similar situations would just as enthusiastically declare. But it is unquestionably a political win for Trump.
It is a blow to Democrats who fervently hoped Mueller’s report would damage beyond repair Trump’s prospects for re-election. Of course, once the full report is public, it may contain information which paints Trump in a more unfavorable light. Democrats can also take comfort that the report comes well in advance of the 2020 election and won’t be as fresh in voters’ minds as it would be if the election were close upon us.
Trump’s not the only one whose opinion on the “Russia thing” and whether he’s guilty of obstruction has been “confirmed.”
A poll by CNN indicates 86 percent of respondents said the Mueller report would have no bearing on how they will vote in 2020. Another poll, by Morning Consult, indicates Trump’s popularity numbers are unchanged since Barr’s summary letter became public. But the Morning Consult poll said 88 percent of Democrats and even 75 percent of Republicans want the entire report made public.
According to the CNN poll, a majority of the public — 53 percent — still thinks Trump is guilty of something while 46 percent believe the report exonerates the president. Those numbers break predictably along party lines although independents, a key voting bloc, polled by Morning Consult seem more suspicious of Trump’s actions than before.
Regardless of where your opinion is represented among those polling data, whether you approve or disapprove of Trump, one thing seems clear: the question of “collusion” or conspiracy with Russians to affect the 2016 election seems answered and closed. That may be hard for Trump critics to accept. After all, candidate Trump rather publicly called on the Russians to release missing Hillary Clinton emails. Members of his family and campaign looking for “dirt” on Clinton met with Russians and then repeatedly lied about it. But given Mueller’s reputation for thoroughness and fairness, it appears there is no evidence of collusion as Trump has maintained all along.
But if Mueller’s reputation and his report — as summarized by Barr — are sufficient to conclude Trump was not colluding with Russians, then Mueller’s comment on obstruction of justice must also trouble.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller said, again according to Barr’s four-page summary to congressional leaders.
Let’s face it: that’s a remarkable thing for a respected former Director of the FBI (and a life-long Republican) to say about a sitting President of the United States. It’s clearly one reason so many want the full report released.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and now writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.