Skepticism emerged the very moment that Attorney General William P. Barr released a four-page letter providing an overview of the conclusions reached in the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Barr’s letter included fewer than 100 words from Mueller himself. It began one quote from Mueller clearing President Trump’s campaign on the question of coordination with Russia halfway through a sentence. It then set aside Mueller’s articulation that Trump wasn’t exonerated on obstruction of justice charges to declare that Trump hadn’t broken the law. Hence: Some skepticism — though not from the president, who declared himself broadly exonerated on anything you could think of.
Those skeptics were probably not surprised, then, to read reporting indicating that members of Mueller’s team felt as though Barr hadn’t given a complete picture of what Mueller found.
“[M]embers of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant,” The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima, Carol Leonnig and Rosalind Helderman reported. “'It was much more acute than Barr suggested,' said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.”
There’s a broad sense that it may be too late, that Trump’s hoisting the “exonerated” trophy over his head established a firm position against which any new revelations would hopelessly flail. But that sense is probably wrong: From the outset, Americans were more skeptical of Barr’s presentation than the president would probably have hoped.
Consider a Post-Schar School poll released this week. Well over half of respondents were more inclined to accept Mueller’s word on exoneration than Trump’s. The group that disagreed? Republicans.
A CNN-SSRS poll released last week had a similar conclusion. Most Americans believe Trump wasn’t exonerated of the specific allegation that his campaign had colluded with Russia — a vague phrasing that wasn’t mentioned in Barr’s letter at all — but that, instead, possible coordination couldn’t be proved.
A CBS News poll in the same time frame offered a slightly more nuanced look at the same question. More than half of Americans either said Trump wasn’t cleared or that it was too soon to determine if he was — a position that was certainly bolstered by the new reporting.
None of this is to say that Americans are necessarily convinced that Trump acted inappropriately. That Post-Schar School poll from this week found opinions on that question were essentially mixed, with most Democrats thinking Trump had committed a crime and most Republicans thinking he’d done nothing seriously wrong at all.
Most Americans did feel, though, that Trump’s team had interacted inappropriately with Russia before his inauguration — a period that includes things like then-national security adviser designate Michael Flynn’s outreach to the Russian ambassador in December 2016.
So there’s one school of thought in which the Barr letter affixes a position of innocence against which new revelations would have to battle. The opposite end of the spectrum to that is the idea that Barr’s letter may have done Trump a disservice: If a fuller release of the Mueller report shows more significant misbehavior on the part of Trump or his team, Barr’s summary might itself seem like part of an effort to bury the truth.
The broader risk to Trump remains consistent. Last month, a Post-Schar School poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans would view an effort to impeach Trump as justified should the Mueller report have determined that he tried to obstruct justice.
But Mueller left that specific question unanswered, complicating the issue, certainly.
Trump’s other ongoing defense, of course, is that this is all sour grapes. His attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was on Fox News on Wednesday night, disparaging the Mueller team members who objected to Barr’s letter as “sneaky, unethical leakers” and “rabid Democrats who hate the president of United States.”
CBS’s poll found that a majority of Americans accepted Trump’s position that the Mueller probe itself was politically motivated, a finding powered by strong Republican support for that position.
That Republican support, as the graphs above make clear, has been consistent: Trump did nothing wrong and he was exonerated by Mueller. The third way of looking at our Barr-set-a-standard vs. Barr-overreached spectrum is that Republicans hold the former position and Democrats the latter. That’s probably the most accurate way of looking at it.
We come back to this graph, from a Fox News poll released late last month.
Most Americans figured the Mueller report wouldn’t change their minds about Trump. Until the report is actually released, it will be hard to determine how accurate those predictions were. Until then, the skeptics seem to have had a point.