The Russia investigation is over. The story about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia during the 2016 election is, in some ways, just beginning.
Over the last two years, special counsel Robert Mueller laid out in countless court filings and 37 indictments how Russian operatives reached out to the Trump campaign in their quest to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and bolster Trump’s odds of becoming president. But on Sunday, Attorney General Bill Barr summarized for Congress Mueller’s conclusion: There’s no clear evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, or that Trump committed obstruction of justice to hide it.
For the president, this judgment was a vindication. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION!” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. This is a stretch. Mueller explicitly refused to clear Trump on obstruction of justice, and although this investigation is over, other federal probes into Trump’s political and financial dealings remain active. But it’s true that clearest threat of impeachment for the president has now evaporated.
And yet, the Russia investigation was purely a legal process: The question for Mueller was whether there was proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, of collusion or obstruction. But the future will act as a different sort of jury. Generations of Americans to come will be able to draw upon more evidence in the court of history than Mueller could in a court of law, and what we know so far is damning for the president and his sympathizers.
Start with the biggest question of all: Did the president and his campaign collude with Russia to sabotage Clinton’s candidacy? According to Barr, Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts.” Trump and his supporters already are claiming this means he did not collude with Russia, but there’s a key difference. As a prosecutor, Mueller had to determine not only whether anyone’s actions amounted to a crime, but whether all elements of that crime could be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a formidable threshold to clear in this case without a smoking gun like the Nixon White House tapes.
There is plenty of evidence of “soft collusion,” or a mutually beneficial understanding between Trump Tower and Moscow, without an explicit quid pro quo. Trump publicly embraced Russian foreign policy aims on NATO membership and economic sanctions while Russian agents reached out to his campaign. He appears to have done nothing to dissuade them in private or in public, nor did he alert anyone about a foreign power’s efforts to influence an American election. In fact, he openly called on the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s private email server and release its contents, while his eldest son welcomed the prospect of meeting a Russian government official who purportedly offered “dirt” on Clinton. And he repeatedly lied about his business efforts in Russia, thereby opening himself up to blackmail by a foreign power.
Trump’s actions demonstrated a clear lack of moral and civic integrity. But not everything that’s wrong is—or should be—a crime. Mueller’s task was to determine whether the Trump campaign ever crossed that line. The president did not make it easy. He fired FBI Director James Comey after urging him to go easy on Trump campaign senior adviser Michael Flynn for lying to investigators about his Russian contacts, attempted to fire the special counsel at least twice, sought to place loyalists in command of the investigation, and dangled pardons for would-be witnesses to deter them from cooperating. It’s impossible to know what Paul Manafort, the imprisoned former chairman of Trump’s campaign, might have told investigators without those implicit pardon offers. But if Mueller still believes there was no evidence of hard collusion, that’s as conclusive an answer as any of us are likely to get.
That leaves the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. Here is where things get murky. Mueller himself wrote that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr told Congress that Mueller decided against drawing any conclusions on the matter himself, and instead laid out the evidence and the “difficult issues” surrounding whether a president can obstruct justice. Barr says that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein then decided that Mueller had not found evidence “sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.
Barr told Congress that Mueller’s conclusion that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute an underlying crime played a role in their own conclusion on obstruction, but it was not “determinative.” His reasoning is grounded in the elements of the crime itself. “In cataloguing the president’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent, each of which [...] would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense,” Barr told Congress in the letter.
It’s hard to assess whether this judgment is sound without seeing the Mueller report itself, which surely delves into the question in far greater detail than Barr’s three-paragraph explanation. Legal experts likely will debate for years whether he and Rosenstein made the right call. But for future Americans, whether Trump obstructed justice in general terms will be a far easier question to answer. The president publicly criticized the investigation more than 1,100 times as of February, lavished praise upon witnesses who refused to “flip” on him, and sharply attacked former allies like Michael Cohen who turned state’s evidence. His implicit offer of pardons will likely place Trump alongside Richard Nixon in the pantheon of the antagonists of the American rule of law.
Many questions remain about what happened, some of which may be answered by the Mueller report itself. Barr told Congress that he will release “as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can” in the near-future after redacting an unknown amount of grand-jury-related material. It’s possible that Americans today won’t have access to that material—unless it’s leaked by someone in the Justice Department—but future generations almost certainly will. As with Watergate after Nixon’s downfall, there will still be journalists’ investigations, tell-all books, and congressional inquiries that build on what’s already clear today.
Perhaps the most pressing question now is what steps are being taken to prevent this from happening again. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report last March that listed its recommendations on election security based on conclusions it drew during its ongoing investigation. Social-media companies that saw their services become vehicles for Russian disinformation said they adopted more aggressive responses during the 2018 midterms. But major gaps remain. Congressional funding is still insufficient for states and counties to adapt, and Department of Homeland Security officials reportedly gutted its task force on election security earlier this year.
Whether the Russia investigation’s outcome steels America against foreign meddling in the future may be the most consequential question of all. During the 2016 election, top Republicans rejected efforts to form a united front against Russian cyberattacks. Will Americans learn from mistakes like that, or will they cite them as precedents for their own future misdeeds? Trump and his associates already won’t fare well in history’s judgment. But the rest of us will be under its gaze, too.