As President Trump prepared to leave Florida in late March, he stopped to talk to reporters. His attorney general, William P. Barr, had just released a four-page document summarizing the findings of the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The document offered good news for the president: an apparent rejection of the idea that his campaign had conspired with Russia and a clean bill of health on questions of obstruction of justice from Barr himself.
“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and — none whatsoever. And it was a complete and total exoneration,” Trump told the reporters waiting on the tarmac in Palm Beach. It was a shame that the country had to go through it, he said, before concluding with the same summary: “So it’s complete exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction.”
As Mueller made clear in the public statement he offered Wednesday — his first of substance since being appointed as special counsel — Trump’s summary was not an accurate one. The special counsel’s report explicitly rejected analysis of “collusion,” a vague term that lacks a legal meaning. Instead of a lack of “collusion” between Trump’s campaign and Russia, Mueller said that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.” Instead of bolstering Barr’s assertion that no criminal obstruction of justice occurred, Mueller asserted that if his team “had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” They did not say so.
None of this was new, really. The release of the report itself made these distinctions clear. Before that release, Barr held a news conference in which he went further than he had in his letter, forcefully asserting that Mueller found no collusion (which, again, he didn’t) and excusing Trump’s actions focused on undermining Mueller as being a function of the president’s frustration. But that effort didn’t make much of a dent, given the flood of information contained in the report itself.
Over time, even Trump himself has moderated his language about Mueller's findings. He's tweeted “no collusion” in one form or another three dozen times since the report came out, but on the murkier and more politically dangerous question of obstruction, he has at times wavered.
Earlier this month, he added an important qualifier when discussing the issue.
"I didn’t have to give them a document,” he said of Mueller's probe. “I gave them 1.5 million documents. I gave them White House Counsel. I gave them other lawyers. Anybody you want, you can talk to."
“At the end of the testimony: no collusion,” he added, “and, essentially, no obstruction.”
That “essentially” is doing a lot of work. Essentially no systematic effort to undermine Mueller’s investigation or to derail it entirely. Not literally no obstruction, sure, but essentially. Some comfort, I guess.
That was on May 9. By May 11, he was back on message, however inaccurate that “no obstruction” message actually was.
In response to Mueller’s statement Wednesday, Trump again revised downward the scope of his purported exoneration.
"Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” he wrote on Twitter. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you."
This is obviously incorrect from a legal standpoint: Plenty of guilty people have been allowed to go free for a lack of evidence, but that doesn’t make them innocent. A lack of evidence has, historically, meant that a criminal case wasn’t closed; cold cases remain open because there isn’t enough evidence to solve them. Not that this is the proper metric by which to judge Trump’s actions: A lack of criminally provable conduct is not the standard to which presidents are usually held.
The tweet is also a far cry from “no collusion.” We’ve gone from:
"It's complete exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction."
To something more like:
“It’s a de facto demonstration of innocence. Not enough evidence to prove a conspiracy. Not a lack of obstruction, but something close to that.”
Not quite as punchy, but slightly more accurate.
This revision of Trump’s position is particularly significant because it also marks some movement away from the finality implied by his initial “no collusion, no obstruction” claim. Working from the no-collusion-no-obstruction position Trump established at the outset, the president’s allies have tried to suggest that Mueller’s statement Wednesday was simply reinforcement of what everybody knew — which, as they present it, was that Trump was exonerated.
Consider the following statement released by Trump’s 2020 campaign after Mueller’s comments.
“Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s remarks today confirmed what we already knew,” it read. “There was no collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and there was no case for obstruction. President Trump has been fully and completely exonerated. Mueller said his investigation is over. The case is now closed.”
That wasn’t at all what Mueller or the report said.
If the reality is more complex than an overarching exoneration, then the politics are similarly more complex. If there was gray area in what Mueller’s team determined, that means that there are still issues to be explored or investigated. That’s not what Trump’s allies or Trump want.
But it’s increasingly a hard reality to avoid acknowledging. Even Trump himself seems to recognize that, intentionally or not.