Read: Imagining Trump’s America without Robert Mueller
In the absence of a determination from Mueller, and sidestepping the complicated questions of whether a sitting president could have been indicted for obstruction, Barr wrote that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided not to prosecute, citing three factors. The first is that many of Trump’s actions took place in plain sight. These were not behind-the-scenes machinations, but moves that were (depending on one’s perspective) either brazen transgressions or simple exercises of presidential power, such as firing Comey and then telling NBC News’s Lester Holt that he had done so, because of the Russia investigation. The second is that because Mueller concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, there was no underlying crime for which the president could obstruct justice. The third was the difficulty of obtaining a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
Comey’s July 5, 2016, press conference recommending that Clinton not face charges is best remembered for his harsh words about the then–Democratic presidential candidate, calling her “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information. The decision was a major breach of protocol, because Comey both usurped the attorney general’s authority to decide on charges and disparaged Clinton without indicting her. The Trump White House cited it as the official reason for Comey’s dismissal the next year, though the president himself quickly demolished that pretense with his comments to Holt.
The backlash to Comey’s announcement—not only from Clinton supporters, but also from many current and former Justice Department staffers—shaped the low-key, cautious release of Mueller’s conclusions, including the special counsel’s personal silence and the dry summary of his work released to the public. But Comey’s explanation for his recommendation echoed Barr’s on Sunday.
“Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges,” Comey said. “There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past. In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.”
The result made no one happy. Clinton’s defenders were angry that Comey had tarred her, even while letting her off the hook. Her critics were even angrier. They reacted in disbelief that the Justice Department could have gathered evidence of wrongdoing and yet still declined to throw the book at Clinton. No one who had previously believed Clinton was guilty was convinced she was innocent.