Mueller's conclusion raises new questions

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP rep predicts watchdog report on alleged FISA abuses will find 'problems' Barr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse MORE has notified Congress that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE found no evidence during his inquiry that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE’s campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

The bombshell disclosure appeared to resolve a core question of the Mueller investigation. It sent shock waves through Washington, with Trump and his allies claiming total vindication of the president after the investigation dogged the White House for just shy of two years.

However, Barr’s four-page letter sent Sunday has raised new questions, and the full contents of Mueller’s final, confidential report to the Justice Department remain shrouded in mystery.

ADVERTISEMENT

Here are three questions that remain even as Mueller closes up shop.

Why didn’t Mueller make a judgment on obstruction of justice?

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017 to investigate Russian interference and the possibility that associates of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia. His investigation also explored whether Trump obstructed justice; ultimately, he did not make a judgment one way or another, according to Barr's letter.

Most of the conversation around potential obstruction has centered on Trump’s firing of FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey3 reasons why impeachment fatigue has already set in Day 2 impeachment ratings drop by more than 1 million from first day Chris Wallace on Yovanovitch testimony: 'If you're not moved, you don't have a pulse' MORE, a decision that ultimately triggered Mueller’s appointment weeks later. Trump hinted in a subsequent interview that he removed Comey because of the Russia investigation, which Comey originally oversaw.

Obstruction of justice is a difficult crime to prove. There is also a legal debate surrounding whether a president can be alleged to have obstructed justice, with some legal scholars arguing that the president has the constitutional authority to fire the FBI director and tell the Justice Department who and who not to investigate.

According to Barr’s letter, Mueller’s closing documentation addresses “a number of actions” by Trump that could raise obstruction of justice concerns, but the special counsel apparently does not reach a conclusion either way in his final report. Instead, Mueller left that call up to Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinDemocrats ask judge to force McGahn to comply with subpoena Democrats ask court to force DOJ's hand on Mueller grand jury materials Washington celebrates diplomacy — and baseball — at Meridian Ball MORE, who decided together that the evidence did not prove Trump acted with “corrupt intent” to impede the Russia probe.

ADVERTISEMENT

Quoting from Mueller’s report, Barr writes that it states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” This is a detail Democrats have seized on in demanding more information.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMaloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman House to hold markup Wednesday on marijuana decriminalization bill House to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members MORE (D-N.Y.) is demanding “full transparency” of Mueller’s findings with respect to obstruction of justice and has promised to call Barr to testify for further explanation.

What investigations did he refer to other districts?

Barr’s letter contains nebulous mentions about ongoing investigations, noting Mueller has referred “several matters to other offices for further action.” Mueller did not, however, recommend further indictments in connection with his own investigation.

At least one of the related probes has been known publicly for months and is viewed by many legal analysts as a significant legal threat to Trump once he leaves office: the ongoing investigation into campaign finance violations to which former Trump attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean Cohen3 reasons why impeachment fatigue has already set in Day 2 impeachment ratings drop by more than 1 million from first day Trump bemoans 'double standard' in Stone conviction MORE pleaded guilty that stem from a scheme to pay off women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump before the 2016 election.

Cohen has implicated Trump in the scheme, and federal prosecutors have signaled in court filings that they have evidence leading them to believe Trump directed those payments. Trump, however, has denied any wrongdoing. Mueller also has reportedly referred an investigation into illegal foreign lobbying to prosecutors in New York that is linked to former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDemocratic impeachment investigators looking at whether Trump misled Mueller Gates sentencing set for next month Yovanovitch says John Solomon's columns were used to push false allegations MORE’s lobbying on behalf of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

It’s unclear, however, what, if any, other ongoing investigations have grown out of the special counsel’s investigation. Trump’s inaugural committee also has faced scrutiny in various districts, though it’s unclear whether those are in any way connected to Mueller’s probe.

And if Barr decides to release Mueller’s confidential report, it’s certain that any details about ongoing investigations would be redacted.

In his letter Sunday, Barr notes that he “must identify any information that could impact other ongoing matters, including those that the Special Counsel has referred to other offices.”

What does the report actually say?

The conclusion of Mueller’s investigation has set the stage for a potentially bruising showdown between the legislative and executive branches over Mueller’s closing documentation if House Democrats are unsatisfied with the information Barr gives them.

Democrats are demanding the full, public release of Mueller’s confidential report, signaling they could subpoena the Justice Department to compel Barr to turn over its contents.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Barr’s letter Sunday sought to address the core questions of Mueller’s probe and appeased many Republicans, it is causing Democrats to further demand the special counsel’s findings and underlying evidence.

Barr’s letter is just a summary of Mueller’s report and includes minimal quotations from Mueller’s documentation. The report’s contents — including the specific “actions” Mueller examined in his obstruction inquiry and the logic accompanying his conclusions — remain shielded from Congress and the public. The White House also was not briefed on or given Mueller’s report as of Sunday morning.

It’s also unclear the extent to which Mueller details the information key cooperators, such as Cohen and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, provided to him as he investigated links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Barr has committed to releasing as much from the report as he can in the interest of transparency, on Sunday acknowledging the “public interest” in doing so. However, his summary of Mueller’s findings to Congress makes clear that any public version of Mueller’s report will leave out grand jury material, in accordance with federal law. Legal experts also expect any details that reveal sources and methods or sensitive national security information will be redacted.