Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his 675-day probe—the most politically charged investigation in American history—with a profoundly unsatisfying conclusion about whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice: Maybe.
The answer came in a convoluted four-page letter to Congress from newly installed Attorney General Bill Barr, who spent the weekend sorting through Mueller’s final report with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“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 US presidential election,” Barr wrote in his letter to Congress, summarizing the principal conclusions of the first part of Mueller’s report. The second part covers the president’s actions, and whether they count as obstruction. On that question, Barr writes, “the Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”
Mueller’s report appears as tenacious and thorough as was to be expected of the former FBI director and long-time prosecutor: Barr reported that Mueller’s team of 19 lawyers, alongside 40 FBI agents, analysts, forensic accountants, and other staff, issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, pulled more than 230 sets of communication records, collected details from nearly 50 pen registers used to track telephone calls, and made 13 requests of foreign governments and law enforcement agencies for additional evidence. They also interviewed around 500 witnesses, although Mueller was unable to question in person a few key figures—namely, the president as well as his children Ivanka and Don Jr.
Along the way, Mueller’s team brought charges against nearly three dozen individuals—including Trump’s campaign chair, deputy campaign chair, national security advisor, and personal lawyer. They also made public, in stunning detail, the extent of the Russian government’s attack on the 2016 election, both its active cyber penetrations targeting Democratic campaigns and state-level voting systems, as well as its online information influence operations. He brought nearly 200 criminal charges, sent five people to prison, collected seven guilty pleas, and won a conviction in the probe’s single trial.
Over the course of his investigation, Mueller established two separate criminal conspiracies to aid President Trump’s election in 2016: one by the Russians, the second involving Trump himself, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the campaign-finance felony charges over hush money payments made to cover his affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. (Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to his role in that conspiracy, making clear that Donald Trump directed the cover-up.)
But Mueller apparently will never answer one way or the other whether the President’s actions count as obstruction. Instead, according to Barr, his report lays out the evidence on both sides of the question. The full final results of Mueller’s investigation, however long the “comprehensive” document may turn out to be, though, remain under lock-and-key at the Justice Department. Barr set no timetable for making more of it public, saying that it needs to go through a careful review first.
Barr’s summary of Mueller’s two top-line conclusions—that the president didn’t collude with Russia and may or may not have obstructed justice—were enough to give Republicans cause for celebration and Democrats heartburn. President Trump promptly tweeted, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”
In his letter, Barr said he and Rosenstein concluded that the evidence is “not sufficient” to support charging Donald Trump with obstruction, even leaving aside the thorny question of whether the president himself can be indicted. Barr’s decision, though, is sure to launch questions and subpoenas from Congressional Democrats given that before he took office he wrote an unsolicited memo arguing that Mueller was wrongly investigating Trump for obstruction.
Even as he answered the two big questions, however confusingly, Barr’s brisk summary of Mueller’s report—and particularly Mueller’s apparent decision not to issue any further indictments, a decision that appears to also exclude the possibility of further sealed indictments—leaves unanswered numerous questions from the probe and even creates new ones.
It also left pundits and congressional aides trying to parse language that appeared purposefully more nuanced than perhaps Trump’s “Total EXONERATION” might imply. For instance, in citing that “the investigation did not establish” a conspiracy with Russia, a Barr footnote pointed out that the special counsel defined “coordination” as an “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference,” a high bar and narrow, explicit definition of what might well have been more nebulous conversations. After all, there were more than 16 Trump campaign associates who had more than 100 contacts during and after the campaign with Russians and Kremlin officials.
Some questions will likely be cleared up in the coming days, particularly as Felix Sater, the Trump Organization’s partner in the 2016 Trump Tower Moscow project who apparently cooperated extensively with Mueller, testifies this week on Capitol Hill. Other questions, though, will await the publication of the full report—or perhaps linger unanswered even longer.
Whatever happened to the extensive testimony Mueller sought and cooperation of would-be Middle Eastern power broker George Nader, dealing with questions of foreign influence related to the Middle East?
What happened to Jerome Corsi, the conspiracy theorist with whom Mueller’s team was in active, advanced plea negotiations late last fall and yet who ultimately escaped without charges?
What did Mueller mean with the various breadcrumbs he left scattered throughout his hundreds of pages of court filings, like how he appeared to single out that Russian hackers attacked Hillary Clinton’s email server “for the first time” after Trump made his “Russia, if you’re listening” comment?
What was the motive or significance of Paul Manafort turning over polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a fact that the public only knows because of screw-ups by Manafort’s lawyers and that Mueller himself never mentioned publicly?
Was there any significance to the arrest of Russian spy Maria Butina and her ties to the National Rifle Association, which Mueller also appeared to be probing, or was that case totally unrelated?
What other parts of Mueller’s probe will continue now with other prosecutors, as we learned that deputy campaign chair Rick Gates’ case has been handed off to DC prosecutors?
What happened inside the Trump Organization as the Trump Tower Moscow deal continued in 2016 amid the campaign, a project that the candidate and later president proceeded to lie about for years?
Did Roger Stone ever actually have direct contact with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange amid the campaign?
How did Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos appear to know about Russia’s hacking operations and digital theft long before it became public?
What was Mueller’s interest in the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked during the 2016 campaign with Trump’s then digital media director (and now 2020 reelection campaign director) Brad Parscale?
What was the truth behind the efforts of Michael Flynn associate Peter Smith—who apparently committed suicide in the early days of Mueller’s probe—to contact Russian hackers during the campaign?
What evidence does the US government have that Vladimir Putin himself authorized the 2016 attacks?
What exactly was discussed amid the odd meetings between Trump and Putin over the last two years—and why all the secrecy around those meetings?
Why did the Trump campaign seek to change the Republican Party platform during its Cleveland convention to be friendlier to Russia?
Why was presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner trying to set up a secure communications backchannel with the Russian government that couldn’t be heard by U.S. intelligence?
Perhaps most importantly and most puzzling: Why all the lies and cover-ups—by Michael Flynn, regarding his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak; by Paul Manafort about his dealings with Kilimnik; by Trump about his Moscow Tower; by Stone about his contacts with Wikileaks; by various officials about their contacts with Russians; by Papadopoulos, and more?
Mueller’s full report may answer some or even many of these and the almost countless other beguiling conundrums and odd circumstances that have swirled among the probe’s major figures. And yet, the fact that Mueller and perhaps the most talented team of investigators ever assembled by the Justice Department, given millions of dollars and thousands of subpoenas, apparently couldn’t come up with definitive answers themselves leaves open the question of whether we’ll ever know what really transpired inside the Trump campaign and the Russian attack on the 2016 election.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at email@example.com.
When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works.