The vaudeville and at times burlesque spectacle that has dominated U.S. politics for over two years now reached a pivotal climax last week, when special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on alleged collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia to the Justice Department. The culmination of an investigation that dates back to the early months of Trump’s presidency, Mueller’s report—according to the summary of it released by Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr—failed to establish evidence of coordination on Russia’s efforts to influence the election.* Mueller also refrained from reaching a conclusion on whether or not evidence that Trump sought to obstruct his investigation supported an indictment.
Predictably, Trump’s supporters claimed the Mueller report totally vindicated the president and confirmed his characterizations of the collusion charges as a hoax and the special counsel’s investigation as a witch hunt. The narrative of a great victory for Trump and a turning point in his presidency has gathered momentum and seems to be establishing itself as the conventional wisdom among a chastened national media.
The fact that no one commenting on the report has actually seen it, however, has not been lost on Trump’s critics or other reasonably skeptical observers familiar with Washington spin. In fact, a close parsing of Barr’s letter to Congress supports the notion that the findings on collusion were narrowly limited and that the evidence of obstruction of justice referenced by the report could be quite damaging, even if Mueller himself left the decision of whether or not to indict the president—ultimately a political rather than a prosecutorial judgment—to others.