With Comey out of the picture, Mueller was assigned to continue the investigation into Russian electoral interference—not “collusion” in particular, because that is not a legal term. His remit also gave him the power to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” including obstruction of justice. Given the circumstances of Mueller’s hiring, obstruction should have been seen as just as significant as the vague “collusion” allegations that dominated the headlines.
Per Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report, the special counsel ultimately ducked the question of whether the president obstructed justice. But, even in Barr’s telling, the report clearly did not exonerate the president on this point. That’s worth underscoring: The president may well have obstructed justice. Mueller did not offer a conclusion one way or the other.
And while, according to Barr, Mueller did not find definitive evidence of “collusion,” let’s keep in mind that his investigation produced indictments against 34 individuals and three entities on nearly 200 separate criminal charges. He put Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s campaign during the crucial summer months of 2016, in prison.
Ken Starr: Mueller cannot seek an indictment. And he must remain silent.
Even without Mueller’s considerable efforts, the world would know three things. First, the president’s son met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer to discuss receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton. Second, that same son was in Twitter direct-message contact with WikiLeaks during the period the site was publishing Clinton campaign emails. Third, Trump called for Russia to find and publish Clinton’s emails (the famous “Russia, if you’re listening …” comment).
There’s a lot of smoke here, even if Mueller didn’t find a fire. Perhaps there’s no “collusion,” but there’s plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign held itself to no known ethical standard.
Why, then, does the upshot of the Mueller investigation feel like a victory for Trump? Because of a structural weakness in the media. Reporters are often quite good at handling revelations, or of making a big deal of hidden conspiracies. When almost everything is out in the open, however, as it was here, it’s hard to work out what to say. Important but predictable, generally speaking, is not the U.S. media’s strong suit.
Elected Democrats share some of the blame, too. By using Mueller as a reason not to discuss action against the president—“Let’s wait for what he says” was their mantra—they reinforced the impression that Mueller would be the person to give the definitive verdict on the Trump presidency. As is now crystal clear, that was not Mueller’s view of his role or his investigation.
Mueller did his part: He secured convictions and submitted his report to the attorney general. Between what he uncovered and what was clear all along, there’s plenty of fodder for congressional investigation and public outrage.