On Thursday, April 18, the US Department of Justice released the 448-page long ‘Mueller report’ on whether or not President Donald Trump and his administration colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. US Attorney General William Barr has been receiving backlash for his handling of the report as news has emerged that Trump tried to fire Mueller during the investigation.
Democrats have accused Barr of “misleading” them during his initial summary of the Mueller report.
Who is Robert Mueller and what does his report say?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the US 2016 presidential election.
Mueller was primarily evaluating whether or not any Americans, including those associated with the Trump campaign, were involved in efforts to influence the election.
Mueller investigated both the spread of unverified information on social media and hacking of computers by the Russian government and other agents.
He was also looking into whether or not Trump’s actions during the investigation amounted to “Obstruction of Justice”, meaning impeding the proceedings or investigation with ulterior motives.
Barr summarised Mueller’s findings and said the report found no wilful cooperation between Trump associates and the Russians.
On whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr said, “The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion—one way or another—as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.”
Trump to fire Mueller, Comey
The redacted report shows 10 instances of potential obstruction by Trump.
It also shows that Trump tried to control the Russia investigation and remove Mueller as special counsel because he believed it was the “end of his presidency”.
In June 2017, Trump told White House Counsel Don McGahn to call Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and suggest that Mueller be removed because of a conflict of interest. However, Rosenstein refused to do so and said he would rather resign.
Mueller also said there was “substantial evidence” to prove that Trump fired former FBI director James Comey in 2017 because of Comey’s “unwillingness to publicly state that the president was not personally under investigation”.
Trump’s obstruction of justice
The publicly released Mueller report is largely redacted. Barr’s critics say that his explanation of the Mueller report was too favourable towards Trump when, in fact, the report itself is not as glowing.
Barr said the report did not establish any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian interference. He also said his office will not prosecute the sitting president for obstruction of justice because there is not enough evidence to support the case.
However, we know now that Mueller’s report says, “While the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”
The report also says that Trump managed to avoid obstruction of justice because his subordinates, including Comey, refused to obey his orders.
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” said Mueller.
Did Jared Kushner and Trump Jr. collude with Russia?
On June 9, Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Russian agents to exchange “negative information on Hillary Clinton”. Although Mueller’s office spoke with Kushner and the Russians who attended the meeting, Trump Jr. declined to be interviewed voluntarily.
However, Mueller stopped short of accusing Kushner and Trump Jr. of collusion with Russia because the evidence does not concretely say that they wilfully and knowingly broke any campaign laws.
“Accordingly, taking into account the high burden to establish a culpable mental state in a campaign-finance prosecution and the difficulty in establishing the required valuation, the Office decided not to pursue criminal campaign-finance charges against Trump Jr. or other campaign officials for the events culminating in the June 9 meeting,” said Mueller.
Trump’s response to the Mueller report
Trump defended himself on Twitter saying he had the right to fire Mueller and “fight back” but did not.
“I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!” he said.
Trump also posted a video compilation of the many times he said “No collusion” accompanied by comments from two men on news channels who said Trump may have been telling the truth.
Trump has not responded to the nuances of the report. Instead, he has chosen to focus on the conclusion that Mueller did reach—that there is no proof of his administration working with Russia.
On Instagram, Trump even posted a clip of Barr saying the “bottom line” of the investigation is that Trump did not collude with Russia. He also posted a picture on Twitter with text similar to the Game of Thrones title sequence, denying collusion.
However, Trump seemed to contradict his denials of collusion by tweeting that former President Barack Obama had prior knowledge of Russian interference and “did nothing” to prevent it.
Trump added, “Most importantly, the vote was not affected.”
Why Barr is not prosecuting Trump
While releasing the Mueller report, Barr made some comments.
He said Mueller not finding links between the Trump campaign and Russian interference is “something that all Americans can and should be grateful to have confirmed”.
Barr added that after reviewing Mueller’s theories of obstruction of justice, he believes there is no “sufficient evidence to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense”.
He also said he disagreed with some of Mueller’s theories of Trump’s culpability. Barr said Trump faced an “unprecedented situation” because as he took office, he was being held personally responsible for Russian interference through “relentless media speculation”.
Barr added that Trump, though “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency”, cooperated with the Special Counsel.
Unhappy Democrats ask Mueller to testify
Senior Democrats have asked Mueller to testify because they are losing faith in Barr.
“It is clear Congress and the American people must hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in person to better understand his findings… We cannot take Attorney General Barr’s word for it. We must read the full Mueller report, and the underlying evidence. This is about transparency and ensuring accountability,” said Congressman Jerry Nadler.
Nadler also accused Barr of unfairly briefing the White House on the report prior to its public release.
Congressman Eric Swalwell has called for Barr’s resignation, accusing the attorney general of acting like Trump’s defence attorney instead of an impartial actor.
Legal implications and next steps
Mueller says Trump’s written responses to his queries were “inadequate”.
Hence, experts have wondered why he didn’t subpoena the President to appear before an investigating committee to answer questions directly.
Mueller says he decided against that because he was worried his investigation would be delayed.
“We thus weighed the costs of potentially lengthy constitutional litigation, with resulting delay in finishing our investigation, against the anticipated benefits for our investigation and report,” said Mueller.
Instead, he left his report inconclusive on Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice, allowing Congress to launch its own inquiry into the matter if it so pleased.
Mueller clarifies that the US Supreme Court does not “categorically and permanently immunise a president for obstructing justice”.
Hence, if the Congress wants, it can prosecure Trump under law for obstruction of justice because “no person is above the law”.
It’s important to note that simply because Mueller chose not to prosecute the president, does not mean Trump is exonerated of any wrongdoing.
How it’s happened here at home
Even in India, prime ministers have had their fair share of such legal murkiness.
In 1975, PM Indira Gandhi was barred from holding office for six years because she was found guilty of electoral corruption. In 1977, she was arrested and charged with corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Act. She refused to post bail, claiming that the arrest was politically motivated.
“It is to prevent me from going before the people. It is an attempt to discredit me in their eyes and the eyes of the world,” she’d said.
Current PM Narendra Modi was also investigated for his connection to the 2002 Godhra riots as Gujarat chief minister. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) gave him a clean chit, stating there was “no prosecutable evidence” against him and 58 others who were investigated.
However, in 2018, a petitioner has moved the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat High Court that accepted the SIT’s report.
While alleged high-level corruption is difficult to investigate, the process of doing so in itself is an exercise in democracy.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.