Even in a moment of triumph, Donald Trump lied.
Exulting over the summary findings of the Mueller report, as spun by his attorney general, William Barr, President Trump declared that the investigation found "no obstruction" and resulted in "complete and total exoneration." But according to Robert Mueller's own words, that boast is utterly false — especially with respect to a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Or to quote directly from Barr's four-page memorandum to Congress, "The Special Counsel states that 'while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.'"
Exactly what that partially quoted sentence means, lifted from a still-secret document that must be hundreds of pages long, remains to be seen. We will know someday, assuming that the Justice Department or Congress will disclose Mueller's findings and evidence. Why was the special counsel unable to clear the president of obstruction of justice — the same crime that led to the ouster of Richard Nixon — and how did he approach that question?
What we do know is that the ultimate decision on whether to charge Trump with obstruction was left to Barr and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, both political appointees of the president. But that outcome contradicts the entire purpose of the Special Counsel Act, designed to ensure that conflicted Justice Department officials don't make prosecution decisions about the president who appointed them.
Barr's own problem was far worse than the ordinary conflict contemplated by the act, since he was selected for his job by this president specifically because, not long before his appointment, he stated publicly that Trump as president should not be prosecuted for obstruction. More than a few observers thought Barr should be disqualified from confirmation for that expression of bias alone.
Barr's letter to Congress says that his decision on an obstruction charge was not based on his views about the presidency but on Mueller's finding that Trump did not commit the underlying crime of conspiring with the Russians to interfere with the 2016 election. The absence of sufficient evidence to charge on obstruction thus "bears on the President's intent with respect to obstruction." According to Barr, the Mueller 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 ..."
But there are huge holes in that justification. Without interviewing the president, it seems impossible for either Mueller or Barr to determine his intent. And the president, despite his personal promise to submit to a Mueller interview, instead evaded it. Then there is the glaring fact that the president himself declared he had fired James Comey as FBI director to kill the Russia probe — a declaration of corrupt intent uttered in public more than once.
Even more telling is Barr's attempt to brush aside Trump's dangling of a pardon before Paul Manafort and other defendants. That hinted favor appears to have had an enormous impact on the Russia investigation, because the Office of Special Counsel indicated as much in its sentencing memorandum on Manafort.
The circumstances surrounding Manafort are undoubtedly critical to understanding why the special counsel was unable to prove a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the hurdle for a prosecutor to seek a criminal indictment.
But even if the evidence did not support a conspiracy indictment, that doesn't mean Mueller found "no evidence" of such a conspiracy, as some news outlets headlined — or that there was no conspiracy involving bad actors nominally outside the Trump campaign and the Russian government — such as Roger Stone and his friend at WikiLeaks.
As for Manafort, prosecutors accused him of violating his cooperation agreement with them by lying about an event of utmost importance to the special counsel's investigation: namely, his meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik, identified as a Russian government asset by the FBI, where he gave Kilimnik 75 pages of highly detailed Trump campaign polling data. Manafort also tried to conceal several meetings with Kilimnik to discuss the lifting of economic sanctions on Russia that were imposed after Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea.
By lying to Mueller in hope of a pardon, Manafort may have erected a stone wall even the special counsel could not surmount.
Americans need to know why, despite the activities of Manafort and scores of other contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign, the investigation "did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."
That question cannot be answered without release of the full text of the Mueller report and its underlying evidence. Bill Barr's spin memo is far from sufficient.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.