Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr on Friday, March 22, ending a nearly two-year long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and related matters surrounding President Trump. Barr then delivered a four-page letter to Congress and the White House, summarizing his conclusions about the full report, declaring that Mueller did not find that anyone associated with the Trump campaign had conspired with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Barr also declared that Mueller neither found that President Trump had obstructed justice nor exonerated him of that crime.
On March 28, experts discussed the attorney general’s summary findings, and what this means for the future of the Trump administration now and in the 2020 election. Brookings scholars Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Margaret Taylor, joined by Mary McCord, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University, participated in the event.
On the question of vindication for President Trump
Wittes, who served as moderator, opened the panel with a discussion of what he viewed to be the least interesting parts of this entire debate: the Mueller report and the Barr letter on their own.
As a result of the letter, the Trump administration is celebrating–but Democrats are demanding release of the full report. Wittes grounded the discussion with a question: “How much vindication can or should the president be claiming at this point?” He also noted that the full report has yet to be released, and, therefore, judgments on what it says are premature.
Satisfying House Democrats and their constituencies
The conversation shifted to a discussion of Democrats’ reactions to the Mueller report and the Barr letter, and the general distrust they have toward the Trump administration. Taylor noted that Democrats will be doing election calculus in the next few months as the report is (presumably) released. Will they be tempted to pursue side investigations as the elections approaches and constituents have other policy preferences?
“People are looking to the 2020 presidential election, and the House, they get elected every two years. They are thinking about their campaigns. They are going to have to decide how much political capital to expend on this when the reality is that in the context of elections this one issue of many that constituents will be concerned about,” Taylor stated.
Waiting to make a judgment on the Mueller report
With a report as high profile as the special counsel’s, and one that took nearly two years to produce, the four-page Barr letter is most likely only a partial summary of the Mueller report’s contents. Hennessey reminded people to wait until the full report is released, even with its necessary redactions, and read it in full before forming any opinions. Hennessey also noted that though the conclusions of the report may be disappointing to some, “The Special Counsel’s Office probably found whatever there is to be found.”
What to make of Barr’s letter
Barr’s summary letter focused on two principle conclusions, including potential illegal activity on the part of the president and his campaign. However, Mueller’s role as special counsel was broader than just investigating crimes related to the 2016 election; he also looked at the broad scope of Russian interference in the election. McCord pointed out how unclear it is if the attorney general chose to focus on these two points in his letter or if this is a complete summary of the Mueller report. Once the Mueller report is released, Congress and the public will be able to decide for themselves.
McCord stated, “People should know what kind of behavior is concerning when it comes to relations with one of this country’s greatest adversaries, Russia. People are entitled to know those relationships even if they didn’t rise to the level of a crime.”
Mueller’s decision to not make a decision
Regardless of the contents of the full report, Mueller chose to not bring charges against the president. Hennessey said that there is nothing improper about Mueller’s choice. “My gut is that, ultimately, that’s Bill Barr offering his opinion in a way that Congress is ultimately going to have to determine for itself,” Hennessey said. Barr has said that Congress will get a partially redacted report by mid-April or sooner.
The full event audio and video are available on the event’s webpage.