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What Bill Barr doesn’t explain about the Mueller report

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- Commentary
Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

OK, we understand that there will be no criminal charges against Trump, his family or campaign for conspiring with Russians to interfere in the 2016 elections. That much we could tell in the telling of just the topline information in the 22-month special counsel probe of all-things-Russia.

Less understandable, perhaps, is that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III made no determination about any obstruction of justice, despite lots of open efforts to overturn the investigations, leaving to Atty. Gen. William P. Barr and Deputy Atty Gen. Rod Rosenstein a call that there is insufficient evidence to support an obstruction prosecution.

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Still, there it was in black and white, the conclusion that we cannot exclude obstruction either.

As Americans, I suppose we can be thankful that a counterintelligence investigation led by Mueller has not determined that the U.S. president is somehow working as an agent of the Russian government.

We can be thankful that a counterintelligence investigation has not determined that the U.S. president is somehow working as an agent of the Russian government.

Still, the release of the long-awaited Mueller Report seems to me to be pretty far from calling for a day of celebration for No Collusion­—as Trump trumpeted from Florida.  Stupidly, the president also repeated that the Russian investigations were “Illegal”; if anything, he should be thanking the Dept. of Justice for having a narrow legal viewpoint that just saved his rear.

It does means that a whole bunch of people ought to be breathing easier because they couldn’t be prosecuted under criminal laws. And it does confirm that this president has surrounded himself with people who lie, cheat and, yes, conspire, whether with Russians or others, though their legal guilt is generally for lying to prosecutors, Congress and fraudulent behavior.

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But as legal analyst Jonathan Turley argues, the lack of indictments may also just be definitional—a president or presidential candidate alone cannot conspire; you need others with whom to conspire, and Russian intelligence is unlikely to make such contact easy to follow. Still, “Trump has shown that he can do a lot of damage alone. He can tweet alone and speak alone. He can even obstruct alone. The one thing he cannot do alone is collude. As defined by Webster’s dictionary, collusion is a ‘secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose’ among multiple people. There is no immaculate collusion.”

So, even with no collusion charges, there is plenty here that should make us as a nation pretty thoughtful about what has occurred and about how to deal with a president who thinks nothing of lying left and right with us.

For openers, the president himself was declared off-limits by Dept. of Justice rules that put a sitting president beyond the reach of most indictments and other criminal prosecution. For another, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are sitting on court filings finding the same president as mastermind of a scheme to avert campaign finance money rules, a crime, and, along with New York State and others, is now continuing to drill into non-Russia illegalities involving the Trump Foundation, the Trump inauguration, operations of the Trump Organization in making fraudulent business claims to banks and other such work.

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To hear the White House and supporters of the president, however, today is Fourth of July-worthy of fireworks: That there will be no further indictments from the Mueller operation itself is proof of innocence, not just the absence of criminality. Thus, the inane hooting of “witch hunts” will continue ad nauseum, a defiant cry that this president can do no wrong.

Of course, to hear the anti-Trumps, the government once again got it wrong. This president is guilty, guilty, guilty, and it is our job just to find the right crime on which to hang the verdict.

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For sure, Democrats in Congress are taking all of this as then only to the first phase—the determination of legally prosecutable crimes. There are millions of miles to travel through the same muck over whether the evidence—which has yet to be turned over—supported other action up to and including impeachment, the chances for which just went out the window as a bipartisan matter.

People want to hear what they want to hear and are resistant to the entry of fact. It is the opposite conclusion from the actual undertaking of the whole Mueller investigation. So too is any disappointment that this query into how Russia got its claws into our election efforts somehow did not turn into a new inquisition of Hillary Clinton and her email habits, as advanced by the political Right.

I feel myself fully supportive of the Mueller effort, and separating from any expectations about what it might have found about obstructing justice as a crime, I have to be content with the fact that important questions were raised, that facts were carefully examined, and that—within the context of Justice Department procedures—decisions were made about what actions were prosecutable.

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Actually, the story behind the charges seem to be a lot more interesting than any criminal charges themselves. Because of the Mueller investigation, we know that there were more than 100 contacts between the campaign and its personnel and Russian operations, much of it hidden. We know that the Trump campaign proved so eager for dirt on Hillary that the campaign took meetings it should not have, that everyone involved has lied persistently, that this administration has been supportive of policies that result in distributing misinformation using social media, that the campaign had contacts, however legally indirect, with WikLeaks to distribute private documents, that Trump’s campaign manager shared private election polling with Russians, that the campaign dropped Republican support for sanctions on Russia. That story of deepening relations with Russia showed that if not criminal, the Trump folks were unsophisticated sorts who unwittingly helped the Russian effort.

The key questions for me are 1) whether distribution of this Mueller report findings can help bridge understanding in a capital where partisan lines run so deep and are so dividing, and 2) whether Republicans can no join with Democrats in actually trying to determine what happened beyond the topline criminal charges to be able to better protect this country. Unfortunately, the answer to both seems an emphatic No.

Even with no Russia criminal charges, we have fistfuls of other behaviors that are well beyond ethical into other sorts of illegalities, being pursued by other arms of the Justice Department and New York States.

If the Mueller Report has a lasting effect, it should be that important questions deserve serious and non-partisan examination.

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