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The Barr letter is a massive political victory for Trump

Barr’s letter will define the narrative on the Mueller investigation — even if it’s wrong.

US Attorney General William Barr listens while President Trump speaks about a state of emergency for a border wall on February 15, 2019 in Washington, DC.
US Attorney General William Barr listens while President Trump speaks on February 15, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Attorney General William Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia and 2016 was delivered to Congress on Sunday afternoon. We still don’t know what the report itself says, but there’s no doubt that Barr’s summary is a huge win for President Donald Trump.

According to Barr’s letter, Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia” during the 2016 campaign. Mueller apparently did not come to any firm conclusion on whether Trump’s interference with the investigation constituted obstruction of justice, instead asking Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to draw a conclusion based on their read of Mueller’s work. Barr and Rosenstein decided that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Substantively, this leaves a lot of big questions about the investigation unanswered. Barr doesn’t quote nearly enough of Mueller’s work on the 2016 election to support his brief summary. Nor does he explain in detail why he decided the evidence on obstruction wasn’t enough — something that is especially important since, prior to his Senate confirmation, Barr wrote a memo harshly criticizing the Mueller investigation and, in particular, its approach to the obstruction question.

But politically, Barr’s letter is a massive PR victory for the president. It allows Trump to claim victory on both substance of the investigation and the obstruction charges and to say that his oft-repeated mantra of “no collusion” is entirely accurate. This is the interpretation that will dominate cable news for the next few days, maybe even weeks, demoralizing Democrats and rejuvenating Republicans.

Barr says at the end of the letter that he wants to release Mueller’s full report, but that there are tricky legal issues surrounding what evidence detailed in the report can and can’t be made public. These issues are currently under review; Barr says that he will release the Mueller report “as soon as that process is complete,” but who knows how long the review will take.

It’s possible Barr’s summary is accurate and the report is as good as it seems for Trump. It’s also possible that it’s misleading, and that Barr’s decision on obstruction was influenced by the beliefs he held before becoming attorney general. We just don’t know at this point.

But what is clear is this: The president absolutely has to be thrilled today.

Barr’s letter is everything Trump could have asked for

The best way to understand the politics here is to look at this tweeted statement from Sarah Sanders, Trump’s press secretary:

The first two sentences in Sanders’ statement are essentially accurate summaries of what Barr wrote in his letter. The last one is more than a bit of a leap.

Barr does not say that Mueller proved Trump innocent on either collusion or obstruction, but merely that there was not sufficient evidence of his legal guilt on either count. The Mueller report, in Barr’s summary, doesn’t clear Trump or his campaign staff of any wrongdoing or shady ties to Russia — it just concludes what they found is not enough evidence to establish that what they did in 2016 was criminal.

And when it comes to obstruction, Mueller explicitly did not “exonerate” Trump. Barr himself is explicit on this point: “The Special Counsel states that ‘while the report does not conclude that the President has committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Does the president’s handpicked attorney general making the final call on obstruction constitute “exoneration” when Mueller didn’t go that far?

But these are fine-grained and detailed distinctions that will likely be lost on a lot of people. On the face of it, Sanders’s spin that this vindicates the “no collusion, no obstruction” line seems right. The cable news summary of this report is “no charges for Trump, no evidence of crimes” — and that’s basically the message Sanders is hammering away at. As is her boss, in characteristically blunter fashion:

This version of events will be repeated over and over again for the next few days, on cable news and talk radio and congressional Republicans’ social media platforms. Twitter is full of them right now. All Democrats can say in response is “we need to see the full report” — which is true, as far as it goes, but not exactly a resounding response.

The report’s phrasing hands the president and his allies a victory in the spin wars before they even have begun. That’s true regardless of how accurate his summary is or how open the underlying report is to different interpretations. Since it’s still not clear when we’ll get to see the full report, or just how complete any version released to the public would be, Barr’s version of Mueller’s report will likely be the version that’s treated as authoritative for at least some time.

Democrats are already trying to push back on this. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is already threatening to haul Barr in for questioning.

Whether Nadler and other Democrats could get Barr to admit something damning under questioning — if there is indeed something damning to admit — is an open question. Without the full text of the report, demonstrating any discrepancies between it and Barr’s account will be hard. And it’s not clear, again, when the full report will be released.

So given how favorable Barr’s text is for the president, how easily it can be spun as complete and total vindication for Trump, that’s about as big a win as he could have hoped for.

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