President Trump's regular refrain of “no collusion” has been matched only by his declarations that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a “witch hunt.” Trailing close behind, though, was the president's repeated insistence that there was “no obstruction” to go along with the lack of collusion.
Trump would often insist that the only reason special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was even considering the issue of obstruction of justice was that the question of collusion had been disproved (which, of course, it hadn’t been).
On Sunday, with the release of Attorney General William P. Barr's letter summarizing what Mueller's probe found, Trump was triumphant.
“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and — none whatsoever,” Trump said. “And it was a complete and total exoneration. It’s a shame that our country had to go through this.”
It took zero minutes for observers to note that Trump’s assertions about what Mueller found were untrue. In Barr’s letter, he specifically quotes from Mueller’s findings about possible obstruction of justice: “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” It was, instead, Barr who determined that Trump’s actions wouldn’t have amounted to the level of a crime.
More broadly, though, it's ridiculous for Trump to claim to have been totally exonerated.
For example, Mueller’s determination that Trump’s campaign didn’t coordinate with Russian actors during the 2016 election leaves open a number of other questions about what Trump, his campaign and his allies may have been up to. There remain extensive questions about interactions between members of Trump’s circle and Russians over the course of the campaign and transition that are unresolved, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner meeting with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower on Dec. 1, 2016. There are questions about the extent to which members of Trump’s team knew about what WikiLeaks planned to release and how they knew it. Mueller’s team specifically suggested that Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone had been asked by a senior campaign official to seek out more information about WikiLeaks, but we don’t know who made that request and on whose behalf they did so.
Put another way, there are Russia-adjacent questions which exist, and for which we may never get answers — but ones which could certainly still implicate Trump, if not on illegal coordination.
We also don’t know whether Trump has been exposed to possible questions of perjury. He never sat for an interview with Mueller’s team but did offer written answers to questions they posed. Barr’s letter doesn’t address those responses at all and, in an interview with CNN on Monday morning, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said that he thought Trump’s answers should be kept private.
Why? Well, reporting from CNN last year indicated that Trump told Mueller’s team that, first, he’d never been told about WikiLeak’s upcoming releases by Stone and, second, that he didn’t know about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked attorney before it happened.
It's always seemed unlikely that Trump didn't know about that meeting. The evening that the meeting was finalized by his son Donald Trump Jr., Trump gave a speech in which he promised to unveil dirt on Hillary Clinton — the exact point of the meeting, as his team understood it at the time. But Trump insists he didn't know.
In his testimony before Congress last month, Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said that he’d been in a meeting in about that time frame when Trump Jr. came to Trump’s office and confirmed that a meeting had been finalized, something that was unusual for Trump Jr. to do, according to Cohen.
Cohen also testified that he was present for a call in July 2016 in which Stone told Trump that WikiLeaks would soon release documents incriminating Clinton. That would seemingly undermine the reported assertion by Trump about his familiarity with what WikiLeaks was up to. And if CNN’s reporting about Trump’s answers is correct, it’s hard to believe that Cohen didn’t tell Mueller’s investigators the same contradictory thing and, then, that they would have failed to notice the conflict.
Speaking of Cohen, he was also involved in perhaps the most immediately incriminating activity by Trump: the two payments to women before the 2016 election aimed at burying stories about alleged affairs. Cohen pleaded guilty to two felony campaign finance charges last year while directly implicating Trump in the crimes. The parent company of the National Enquirer, which made one of the payments, also admitted guilt in the scheme.
No part of Barr's letter exonerates Trump on any involvement in those crimes.
Trump has similarly not been exonerated for any possible role in the Donald J. Trump Foundation having allegedly tried to influence the 2016 election through its charitable giving. Those alleged acts were described last year by former New York attorney general Barbara Underwood as involving “unlawful coordination” with the Trump campaign.
Trump has not been exonerated on any questions that exist around how his presidential inaugural committee raised and spent money. The committee is under federal investigation for possible misspending of donated funds and to determine whether donors hoped to access administration officials. The misspending could include excessive spending at Trump’s D.C. hotel, which ended up as the recipient of $1.5 million in inaugural funds. While Trump has at times denied involvement in the decision-making surrounding his inauguration, Bloomberg recently reported that he was heavily involved at a detailed level.
That his hotel made so much money from his inauguration is a reminder of another question mark that still hangs over Trump: If his properties’ receiving money from foreign parties violates the Constitution’s clause barring the president from receiving emoluments.
Those are some of the known legal questions Trump faces. During his testimony on Capitol Hill, Cohen also hinted at other possible questionable activity, like potential insurance or bank fraud. House Democrats quickly moved to request detailed information from Trump’s private business and several employees that Cohen identified by name as having information about possible fraudulent activity.
Trump was exonerated by Mueller’s investigation on the question of whether his campaign coordinated on the Russian efforts to hack Trump’s political opponents or its program for influencing voters over social media. On everything else — including, explicitly, on obstruction of justice — Trump was not so lucky.