A recent Quinnipiac University poll asked people whether “the Mueller report cleared President Trump of any wrongdoing, or don’t you think so?"
Seventy-six percent of Republicans said they believe it did clear Trump of wrongdoing. Thirty-four percent of independents agreed.
But Mueller didn’t clear Trump of wrongdoing — and explicitly so. When Mueller first broached obstruction of justice, he says he made a decision not to reach a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” because of Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. But, Mueller adds, if he felt he could clear Trump, he would. Mueller said he couldn’t.
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred,” Mueller wrote. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Barr later decided not to accuse Trump of obstruction, but even he clarified Wednesday that he did not “exonerate” Trump.
The Quinnipiac poll comes on the heels of a Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked a similar question. In that poll, 61 percent of Republicans said they believed "the Mueller investigation cleared Trump of all wrongdoing. It’s also similar to an earlier NPR-PBS-Marist College poll published after the Mueller report’s release, which asked whether people thought “the findings of the report clear President Trump of any wrongdoing, or do questions still exist?” In that poll, 73 percent of Republicans said the report cleared Trump.
But while those polls asked how people interpreted the “findings” of the report or to characterize the whole “investigation,” the Quinnipiac poll focused more directly on Mueller’s conclusions. It asked whether people thought “the Mueller report cleared President Trump,” which it explicitly did not on obstruction. Not even Barr is willing to go that far.
Of course, it’s hard to know whether Barr’s misleading previews of the report are the culprit here, or if this is simply partisans believing what they want to believe. There’s certainly plenty of evidence of partisans believing things that are objectively untrue about this whole situation.
But there’s a valid argument to be made that Barr fomented disinformation on this point — just as Robert S. Mueller III suggested in his newly reported letter to Barr. Even as Barr downplayed the letter in his testimony Wednesday, he acknowledged that Mueller was concerned that he didn’t adequately explain the reasons behind Mueller’s lack of a conclusion on obstruction.
“I asked him, you know, specifically what his concern was,” Barr said Wednesday, “and he said that his concern focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction, and he wanted more put out on that issue.”
Barr said in his initial summary that Mueller didn’t reach such a conclusion but that he also didn’t exonerate Trump. Barr didn’t reveal that Mueller had punted on accusing Trump of a crime based upon policy, rather than evidence. That could leave the perception that Mueller simply didn’t believe the evidence was strong enough — and perhaps even cleared Trump.
Mueller’s concern about that point seems to be bolstered by these polls. People wrongly believe Mueller cleared Trump. And they do that despite Mueller outlining at least five potential obstruction events that satisfy the three criteria for obstruction.
They may have believed that no matter what. But Barr’s letter didn’t help clarify what the report actually said.