Read: The critical part of Barr’s report that Mueller didn’t mention
Barr’s letter certainly offered new and even important information. Mueller’s investigation, he quoted the special counsel’s report as saying, “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr also wrote that Mueller “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to whether or not the president had obstructed justice, declining both to implicate the president in the commission of a crime and to exonerate him.
President Trump, never one to linger on nuance, was predictably gleeful: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” he tweeted, inaccurately. The press, meanwhile, seemed ready to declare the story of the Russia investigation over and done with. “A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted,” read a New York Times headline. The Washington Post took a similar approach: “Mueller’s findings seemed to dispel the cloud of conspiracy that has hung over the administration since its inception.”
Barr’s letter is both so vague and so dense with possible conflicting interpretations that one has to have at least a little sympathy for the headline writers tasked with distilling it into a few words. Any careful examination of the material provided by the attorney general ends up snared in double negatives. Consider Barr’s description of the special counsel’s conclusions on whether associates of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. As Robert Litt, the former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has noted, neither Barr nor the portion of the Mueller report quoted by Barr states that the special counsel’s office found there was “no collusion.” Rather, Litt argued, “saying that the investigation did not establish that there was collusion is not the same thing as saying that the investigation established that there was no collusion.” Likewise, this determination hinges on the relatively narrow definition of coordination that, Barr wrote, the special counsel’s office used for legal purposes.
Read: Echoes of Clinton emails in the Mueller report’s end
This doesn’t mean that there are other shoes yet to drop. But, however frustratingly, it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t. What it does mean is that, whatever new information Mueller’s report does or doesn’t contain on what has come to be called “collusion,” the final determination of whether the Trump campaign’s connections with the Russian government were or weren’t acceptable will not be made in a court of law.
Perhaps the most baffling portion of Barr’s letter, though, is the section on obstruction of justice. According to Barr, Mueller’s report sets out evidence for and against viewing Trump’s conduct as obstruction of justice, but ultimately declined to make a call one way or another—which is, certainly, highly unusual. Why? What made Barr himself decide it was necessary for the attorney general to make the call that Mueller’s evidence was “not sufficient to establish” that Trump had committed obstruction? To what extent was Barr’s decision—and, for that matter, Mueller’s—shaped by Barr’s aggressive view of the interaction between presidential authority and the obstruction statutes, under which an action definitionally cannot be obstructive if it is authorized under Article II of the Constitution? To what extent did that view mean that Barr wrote off presidential conduct that the FBI worried might be both obstructive and a benefit to Russia—such as firing James Comey as FBI director?