Mueller delivers a win for Trump — Five Takeaways

There was relief for the White House and frustration for President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE’s foes on Sunday when a summary of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s findings was released by Attorney General William Barr.

The 22-month probe is over. Here are the main takeaways.

A big win for Trump

The president could hardly have hoped for a better outcome than the one delivered in Barr’s letter to Congress.

“No collusion,” the president has always insisted. Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team now agree.

“The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia” regarding the 2016 election, according to the letter.

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The exoneration on the central question of the investigation has to be taken seriously given the resources Mueller brought to the task. He employed 19 lawyers, had the assistance of about 40 FBI agents and issued more than 2,800 subpoenas.

On the question of potential obstruction of justice, Mueller was equivocal, saying he had neither exonerated Trump nor concluded that he had committed a crime.

Instead, Mueller punted that question to Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinHeavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system Top Judiciary Republican reviews less-redacted Mueller report Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' MORE, who concluded that the “evidence developed … is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Democrats will want to know a lot more about that.

Meanwhile, the president boasted that he had received “a complete and total exoneration” when he spoke to reporters briefly before boarding Air Force One in Florida. 

Congressional allies were just as forceful. 

“Attorney General Barr’s statement today should end the debate,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.), one of the most fervent Trump loyalists on Capitol Hill. “There was no collusion. There was no obstruction. It’s over.”

Meanwhile, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley characterized the president as in buoyant spirits as Air Force One flew back to Washington.

“He’s in a really good mood,” Gidley said, according to pool reports. “He’s just very happy with how it all turned out.”

Democrats face uphill battle

Democrats were quick to note on Sunday that they would continue their own investigations on Capitol Hill, empowered by their healthy majority in the House.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerKlobuchar on impeachment: 'I'm the jury' Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment Pelosi downplays impeachment post-Mueller report MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that his panel would be seeking testimony from Barr himself as it sought to explore what Nadler characterized as “very concerning discrepancies and final decision making at the Justice Department.” 

The House Intelligence Committee and Oversight and Reform Committee are conducting their own investigations into Trump-related matters.

Democrats will argue they are engaged in the important business of holding the executive branch accountable. That’s true as far as it goes — but it doesn’t solve their larger problem.

The Mueller probe has been the main event of Trump investigations since its inception. It seems likely that voters who don’t have strong partisan loyalties will see his findings as the final word.

That makes it hard for Democrats to justify further probes and easier for Trump and his allies to cast them as politically motivated smears. 

The chances of Democrats being credibly accused of overreaching just went up sharply.

Questions remain on obstruction

Trump’s biggest problem in the Barr letter — by some distance — is the uncertainty that hangs over what exactly Mueller found in relation to alleged obstruction of justice.

The letter is strikingly opaque on this point, and Democrats instantly seized on that lack of specificity, demanding to know more. 

In a joint statement, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Julián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Swalwell on impeachment: 'We're on that road' after Mueller report MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage MORE (D-N.Y.) said that the letter “raises as many questions as it answers.”

They have a point. 

The letter says that, on obstruction, Mueller “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” It adds that he “did not draw a conclusion — one way or another — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.”

That seems to indicate Mueller found evidence of behavior that was at least in the ballpark of obstruction — even if Barr and Rosenstein concluded the evidence was not strong enough to sustain a criminal case.

CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin told The Hill that he found it “very strange” that Mueller went so far as to state that the evidence does not “exonerate” Trump.

“Prosecutors don’t usually talk in terms of exoneration,” Zeldin said, suggesting this could point to disagreements between Mueller’s team and top figures at the Department of Justice.

For Trump, the danger remains that Mueller may have uncovered information that will be politically damaging, even if it does not rise to the level of alleged criminality.

The chances of impeachment fall

Pelosi created a stir earlier this month when she pumped the brakes on impeachment in an interview with The Washington Post. 

She noted then that she was not in favor of an impeachment push.

Explaining her reasoning, she said, “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”

It’s impossible to make a case that the Barr letter reaches that threshold. It lacks the heft that would be required to win over independents or soft Trump voters to the need to try to oust the president.

It’s now more certain than ever that Trump’s political fate will be decided at the 2020 election — and not before it.

Egg on the face of talking heads

It’s undeniable that the most feverish anti-Trump figures in the media — including some supposed legal experts — let their hopes outrun the facts on the Russia story. 

Anyone who turned on their television in the immediate aftermath of the Barr letter would have been struck by the amount of attempted face-saving underway.

Mueller’s findings make the confident predictions that he was about to lower the boom on Trump and members of his immediate family look foolish, plain and simple.

Expect Trump and his allies to beat their anti-media drum even louder in the days and months ahead. It’s a good bet they will still be using the Mueller episode as an example of media excess as Election Day 2020 looms.

In a Sunday evening statement, Vice President Pence exulted in “a great day for America.” 

He made a point to include unnamed “members of the media” alongside Democrats as those he said had leveled “reckless accusations.”