|DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES|
There is no question -- none whatsoever -- that Donald Trump's presidential campaign worked with Russia to cybersabotage Hillary Clinton and that Trump himself was well aware of and encouraged that assault on a bedrock of American democracy.
But whether Robert Mueller could clear the extremely high bar to make a prosecutable criminal case always was in doubt, and the by-the-book special counsel apparently could not, which led Trump to claim "total and complete exoneration" and Attorney General William Barr to brazenly suggest without evidence that the FBI spied on the campaign, thereby endorsing the president's relentless claims that Mueller's investigation was a witch hunt from start to finish.
The 22-month investigation was not a witch hunt by any stretch of the imagination. It involved 2,800 subpoenas, 500 witnesses and 500 search warrants leading to 199 individual criminal counts obtained against 34 people and three companies, admissions of guilt by six individuals and still outstanding indictments covering identity theft, money laundering, obstruction, witness tampering, lying to investigators and conspiracy.
In a further assault on democracy and the hallowed concept of an independent Justice Department, Trump had nominated throw-out-the-book Barr to replace Jeff Sessions for one purpose and one purpose only -- to lessen the sting of Mueller's final report -- and so in Barr's pliable hands, the stage was set for a ratfuck of historic proportions.
Barr had issued a grossly incomplete summary of the final report on March 24 and arbitrarily determined, along with Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, that Trump had not obstructed justice although Mueller pointedly refused to make such a sweeping conclusion and pointedly said Trump was not shielded from obstruction laws.
The AG then conducted ethically questionable briefings with Trump's lawyers about what was in the final report so they could put their own spin on it while stonewalling Congress in the run-up to his release on Thursday of an edited version of the report, one for public consumption and another more complete version for key members of Congress.
Although there appear to have been far fewer redactions than critics of Barr had anticipated, he nevertheless delivered in grand style at a morning press conference, not merely laying out the facts, such as they are, but providing a lengthy defense of Trump so over the top that he repeatedly employed Trump's go-to word "collusion" although there is no such legal term.
The biggest takeaways from Mueller's 400-page final report (click HERE for a full redaction version) are that:
* Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign, the Trump campaign was willing to take it, and expected to "benefit electorally" from the Kremlin's interference.
* Trump himself repeatedly pushed for obtaining Hillary Clinton's private emails, and his campaign was in touch with allies in addition to Russia who were pursuing them.
* Trump himself was well in the loop, including knowing when WikiLeaks would release more damaging information in the form of Russian-hacked emails.
* Trump's repeated efforts to obstruct justice in trying to shut down the investigation failed because the president's staffers defiantly "refused to carry out orders."
In revealing new details about interactions between Russians and Trump associates, Mueller wrote that although the investigation "did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities," that assertion was informed by the fact that coordination requires more than merely two parties "taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests."
The report further stated that:
"Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Other highlights of unredacted portions of the report:
* Mueller's investigators struggled with both the legal implications of investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice and the motives behind his most alarming actions, from seeking the ouster of officials to ordering a memo that would clear his name."The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment," the report stated. "At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment."
* The question of obstruction was further complicated by two overriding factors -- that under Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, and that a president has a great deal of constitutional authority to give orders to government employees.
Although Trump ultimately submitted written answers to investigators, Mueller's office considered them "inadequate" but did not press for an interview because doing so would cause a "substantial delay" in completing the investigation.
* Trump was repeatedly saved from more serious legal jeopardy by his own staffers, who refused to carry out orders they thought were problematic or legally dicey.
For instance, when the president was facing growing questions about then-national security adviser Michael Flynn's conversations about sanctions with a Russian ambassador, the Trump ordered another aide, K.T. McFarland, to write an email saying that the president did not direct those conversations. Unsure if that was true and fearing it might be improper, she decided not to do so.
"The President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency," Barr stated in attempting to explain away Trump's conduct while falsely claiming that the White House "fully cooperated" with the special counsel's investigation, among the other misrepresentations he trotted our in the course of his press conference.
In other words, Trump's attempts at obstruction were okay because he was sincerely paranoid.
And astonishingly if not surprisingly, Trump's legal team declared "total victory" and claimed he was victim of "a scheme to derail the president" by former FBI Director James Comey and other officials.
If you are keeping score at home, the day was a sound-bite win for Trump but a defeat for the president if you actually read and understand how damaging the final report turned out to be.
Meanwhile, Mueller is looking pretty damned good, and now that Barr has had his turn at defending Trump, the former special counsel will have his day in the spotlight as he testifies before Congress.
"Total and complete exoneration," my ass.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.