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Your big questions about the Mueller report, answered

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian election interference is over. Here’s what we know. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Attorney General William P. Barr delivered his summary of findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation to Congress on Sunday. In his letter, Barr says that Mueller did not find that Donald Trump’s campaign or any of his associates conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

According to Barr’s letter, Mueller did not offer a definitive answer as to whether the president may have obstructed the investigation, but Barr himself concludes Trump committed no “obstructive conduct.”

You can read Barr’s full document here.

Since the document landed, we have been asking for your biggest questions about it. Below, we’ve answered some of them.

Q: The Special Counsel says the report “does not exonerate” the President, but the letter says that Barr and Rosenstein have concluded that the “investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President did not commit an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Is this the end of the obstruction of justice story as it relates to the DOJ? (Paul Oliver, 32, Washington, D.C.)

A: All indications are yes. This was an extensive investigation which was given broad leeway. As Barr’s letter Friday stated, Mueller was never turned down when he asked for permission to investigate specific avenues. This was also a special counsel probe, which is designed to remove the possibility or perception of political influence. If it had been conducted by Trump appointees at the Justice Department and there were questions about the findings, then maybe you go to a special counsel. But we just had the special counsel.

It’s difficult to see why the Justice Department would feel the need to revisit the issue after such a probe.

Q: To what extent was AG Barr’s decision about not charging Trump with obstruction of justice based on the evidence? Or was it predicated on the Department’s long-standing practice of not indicting a sitting president and Barr’s own views about executive privilege? (Debra Klinman, 68, Philadelphia)

A: Barr said it had nothing to do with that long-standing practice, but he didn’t address the role executive authority might have played — if any.

“Our determination was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president,” Barr wrote.

As to executive authority, his letter also does lay out his rationale for why Trump didn’t obstruct, but does not mention executive privilege as part of it. “In cataloguing the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent, each of which, under the Department’s principles of federal prosecution guiding charging decisions, would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction-of justice offense.”

That doesn’t mean it played no role. It’s possible his bar for “corrupt intent” is higher because of the authority he believes Trump has to fire people like FBI Director James B. Comey. But he seems to be saying this was about the evidence. If he testifies, expect him to be asked about this.

Q: Will Trump use the AG’s report as a pretext to grant pardons to those found guilty during the probe — Manafort and Flynn, in particular? (Janice Gotchall, 62, Eugene, Ore.)

A: It’s pretty easy to see Trump now justifying those pardons by arguing that a lengthy investigation that probed potential crimes of collusion and obstruction didn’t produce those crimes. I’d say they are probably more likely now than if Mueller had accused him of crimes.

But don’t forget that we still haven’t seen the report in detail. Mueller didn’t accuse Trump of obstruction, but he also pointedly said he wasn’t exonerating him. That suggests there will be findings in the report that are problematic for Trump. Flynn was always a likely candidate for a pardon, given that he may never serve jail time. Manafort is a tougher one, given that he has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison — and still faces state charges in New York, where Trump can’t pardon him.

I’d expect if people get pardoned, it would come after the 2020 election, whether Trump wins or loses.

Q: Why is there no collusion when numerous Trump campaign officials lied about their contacts with Russians? If there wasn’t something shady going on, why did they lie about the contacts? (Walter, 69, Rio Rancho, N.M.)

A: It looks like this will be one of the great questions about this whole matter that goes unanswered. Paul Manafort recently became the fourth Trump associate legally found to have lied about contacts with Russians — after Flynn, Michael Cohen and George Papadopoulos. Roger Stone allegedly lied about his contacts with WikiLeaks, which served as a front for Russia. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions was accused of lying about his talks with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing.

Prosecutors would tell you that people lie for many reasons, apart from trying to cover up crimes. They may be embarrassed by their noncriminal conduct. They may have worried how it might look for Trump that they were found to be talking to Russians. In the case of Sessions, it’s plausible that he simply didn’t think contact with the ambassador as a U.S. senator qualified.

It’s worth noting that not all the lies and misleading statements are quite the same, though. Flynn’s lie was about his talks with the Russian ambassador after the election. Perhaps he worried that they might violate the Logan Act. Cohen’s and Papaodopoulos’s lies came during the election, but Cohen’s was more problematic, given it suggested he might have been trying to cover up Trump’s plans to build a Trump Tower Moscow. Stone hasn’t been convicted, and Sessions has never been sanctioned.

Q: When will I get to read the unredacted Mueller report? (Frank Anthony Mileto, 63, Millbrook, Ala.)

A: I’m about to give you a deeply unsatisfying answer (for both you and for me): I don’t know when you’ll get to read it, and you may never.

Barr has made it clear that he thinks he is restricted from releasing the entire report, both because of rules against releasing derogatory information about people who haven’t been accused of crimes, and also because there are rules against releasing information obtained via grand jury. In other words, he’s saying this won’t be the whole, unredacted report. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’ll never see it. Democrats have said they will sue for its release, and it’s worth noting that the House voted 420 to 0 to release it. Trump has even said he’s okay with releasing it.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet against us ever seeing anything completely unredacted. The question is whether it’s the actual document, and how much is redacted.

Q: It seems relatively quick from the time Mr. Barr was sworn in to the time of the finished investigation. . . . I would like to know if Mr. Barr stopped it. (Teresa Seeger, 57, Scotia, N.Y.)

A: There is no indication that Barr has shut this down. As mentioned above, Barr wrote that Mueller had never been turned down when he asked permission to investigate something. There is no evidence that Mueller’s funding was impacted, which is a method former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker once floated (as a cable news pundit) for shutting down Mueller. What’s more, there have been indications for months that this was nearing an end, including staff departing and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has long overseen the probe, making it clear he was soon to leave the Justice Department.

Q: If Roger Stone “colluded” with WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks is connected to Russian intelligence, and Roger Stone is an associate of Trump, would this give connection to establish collusion, as opposed to what Barr wrote? (Joseph Coray, 57, Hartford, Conn.)

A: It’s important to emphasize that Stone has not been accused of colluding with WikiLeaks. His contacts with WikiLeaks are the focus of his indictment, but collusion or some kind of conspiracy are not among the seven charges. He is instead accused of making false statements, witness tampering and obstruction of a proceeding.

If Mueller believed he had proof of collusion, you would expect that he would have accused Stone of it. He decided not to.

Q: Why were Flynn’s and Rick Gates’s sentences repeatedly postponed, yet their information led to no further indictments? (Bob Miller, 71, Leesville, La.)

A: It’s true that there are no further indictments in the Mueller probe, but both men have apparently been cooperating with investigations handled by other parts of the Justice Department. Flynn is assisting in the case against his former business associate, Bijan Kian, which is being handled by the Eastern District of Virginia. Gates is apparently assisting in the cases involving the Trump inaugural committee and foreign lobbying, which are being handled in New York.

Q: What kind of judiciary system is this? Bill Barr is appointed by the president to judge what an independent counsel found about the president? A politically appointed AG is NOT the right person to make any summary. There is a clear problem of partiality. It’s up to an independent authority to make a summary, if a summary should be. (Juba Ourad, 59, Sweden)

A: For better or worse, this is how our system works. Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department and a Trump appointee (Rosenstein), so his conclusions were always going to be run through the Justice Department. It has the responsibility to determine who can be charged and what gets disclosed. The statute Mueller was operating under gives him less authority than the one used to appoint Kenneth Starr to investigate former president Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Where this gets interesting, though, is with Mueller’s decision not to reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice. His conclusion on this would have carried great weight, given his independence, but he for whatever reason decided not to accuse or exonerate Trump. That left Barr to decide how to handle that aspect. He and Rosenstein decided to say they don’t see obstruction. The fact that both were appointed by Trump -- and Barr was appointed after strongly criticizing the obstruction portion of Mueller’s probe -- can’t help but color that decision and lead to questions about whether it was necessary.

It is worth noting, though, that Rosenstein agreed with it, according to Barr. And this is someone who found himself repeatedly attack by Trump for appointing Mueller in the first place.

Q: Did Mueller actually ask Barr to weigh in on the obstruction case, or did Mueller intend to leave that to Congress or others? It seems the attorney general is less in a position to opine on that question than the special counsel was. (Michael Smith, 55 Charlottesville, Va.)

A: Good question. Barr’s letter says that Mueller’s decision to punt left it to the Justice Department, but Barr does not explicitly say that Mueller asked him to make the determination. Here’s what Barr wrote: “The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.”

If Mueller didn’t actually ask him to make a determination, that would seem to make his decision to offer one more politically problematic.

Q: Barr (and presumably the report) use the term “Russian government” which seems to limit the scope of the report to official Russian government employees. Is this parsing of terms significant? (Charlene Rasmussen, 73, Wayne, Neb.)

A: I have also seen a number of people focusing on the difference between the “Russian government” and “Russia.” But I’d note Barr’s letter seems to suggest an effort to coordinate with Russians affiliated with the government would be under that umbrella, too. It says "the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

I have a difficult time believing that any conspiracy with such individuals wouldn’t be delineated in Mueller’s report and considered to be evidence of collusion. But, of course, we are mostly relying on Barr’s secondhand characterizations.