There’s no way for President Donald Trump’s opponents to spin it away: He just won a big victory and the Russia-collusion story is over. Here are my takeaways.
First: It is highly likely that Trump and his campaign didn’t collude with the Russian government or its agents to influence the outcome of the 2016 campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t find evidence to suggest that he did, and it’s reasonable to have a strong presumption that if it had happened, Mueller would have discovered it and reported it. We should therefore conclude that it didn’t happen. Of course, this conclusion depends on Barr’s having summarized the report accurately and fairly.
Second: While some Trump critics on Twitter are wishfully pointing out that Barr’s letter isn’t the same as Mueller’s report, the letter almost certainly summarized the report accurately and fairly. The letter was short and to the point, and it didn’t create much wiggle room. Barr wouldn’t claim the report found no evidence of collusion unless it did, because he would be found out and his reputation destroyed. He wouldn’t claim that the report reached no conclusion about obstruction of justice and left it to the Justice Department to decide the question unless it did. Leave contrary speculation to the fever swamps.
Third: The evidence on obstruction of justice will turn out to be equivocal. Note that Barr (with, he says, the agreement of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein) found that the evidence does not justify the conclusion that Trump had obstructed justice, period. The letter specifically ruled out the possibility that Trump obstructed justice but could not be indicted because he is a sitting president. The full report, we can infer, tells a story about Trump’s actions and motives that is susceptible to multiple interpretations — which is to say that while the report may add more detail to the arguments we have been having for the last two years about the firing of James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it won’t settle them.
Fourth: Mueller was not engaged in a witch hunt. There were legitimate reasons to investigate Trump. Russia did, after all, interfere in the election. His campaign was full of shady characters, several of whom are now in prison. Perhaps the investigation should have been carried out by congressional committees instead of a special prosecutor, and perhaps Mueller made some mistakes. But the record suggests that the portrayal of Mueller as a corrupt agent of the deep state bent on bringing down Trump was a fantasy, or worse, spread by some of the president’s most committed supporters.
Fifth: Trump behaved terribly during the investigation. No president, and no person, can be expected to welcome an investigation into his conduct. Trump had every right, too, to pronounce his innocence and bat back misleading media coverage and Democratic rhetoric. But his attacks on Mueller — he has said of Mueller’s team, “They are a disgrace to our Nation and don’t care how many lives the ruin” — were unjust, and unhinged. Trump’s opponents sometimes wrote that these presidential eruptions proved Trump had something to hide. The Barr letter adds to our reasons for thinking that no, they just confirmed the personality traits that led even many of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 to have serious reservations about him.
Sixth: Liberals, and sometimes conservative Trump opponents, repeatedly ran ahead of the evidence, sometimes going so far as to label Trump a “Russian agent” or “traitor.” Breathless journalism made it sound as if Mueller was going to deliver a death blow to the presidency. One effect of this speculation was to work up a lot of liberals into a state of feverish excitement. Another was to make Trump look better by comparison to their theories. Normally, it would be a serious political problem for the White House if the president’s campaign manager had been sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. It is largely his opponents, by talking up fantasies about Donald Trump Jr. being arrested, who have kept it from being one.
Those last two points suggest to me that the president’s flaws and excesses, and those of his critics, exacerbate each other rather than canceling each other out. They make for a political culture that is less and less conducive to sensible governance. That the president did not collude with the Russians is very good news. The bad news is the slide of our politics into a pit of folly and strife, and it is going to outlast the Russia-collusion controversy.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.