In May 2017, the Star Tribune Editorial Board welcomed the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the criminal investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Repeatedly since then, this page has urged Congress and the American people to withhold final judgment on Trump-Russia until all of the evidence was in.
We now have a summary of Mueller’s central findings that is unsatisfying in its brevity regarding the underlying evidence. The special prosecutor determined that neither Trump nor his aides conspired with the Russian government as it meddled in the 2016 election. That’s good news for the president — and, more important, for the nation. Still, the fact that a foreign power interfered in our election remains deeply troubling.
On another front, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both Trump appointees, also concluded that Mueller lacked sufficient evidence that the president obstructed justice. But it’s critical to note that Mueller himself did not reach a conclusion on obstruction.
“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” on obstruction, according to Mueller’s report, as quoted in Barr’s summary released Sunday.
That did not stop the Trump administration from declaring victory, with press secretary Sarah Sanders describing the findings as “a total and complete exoneration” of the president.
“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this,” Trump said of the investigation Sunday afternoon, calling it “an illegal takedown that failed.”
In fact, the Mueller investigation was exactly what America needed to go through — presuming the full report is soon released. Barr’s summary is simply his interpretation, and without seeing Mueller’s report many will question the attorney general's judgment.
Mueller’s investigation produced charges against 13 members of a Russian troll farm that orchestrated an online influence campaign to influence the 2016 vote. His team’s 22-month probe produced indictments against 34 people, including six former Trump aides, on charges ranging from tax fraud to lying about ties to Russia.
Again and again, Trump called the investigation a “witch hunt,” but Mueller and his team did the nation a great service. So, too, will state and federal prosecutors who continue to investigate a variety of allegations involving the president and his business operations.
In the coming days, much attention will focus on Barr, who has said he is “committed to as much transparency as possible” in dealing with Mueller’s findings.
We understand that the Justice Department’s practice is generally to protect those who have been investigated but not charged as a result. Other concerns include the integrity of grand jury proceedings and classified information. But Congress should insist foremost on protecting trust in our democratic process and the legitimacy of the presidency.
It may be that after all of the available evidence has been considered, Americans will remain divided on how much Trump and his administration knew about or participated in Russia’s work on the president’s behalf.
If that’s the case, the ultimate reckoning will come in November 2020 in an election all Americans should be able to trust as being free of foreign influence.