WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that Donald Trump or his campaign schemed with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, according to a summary released Sunday that the president immediately embraced as a "complete exoneration" even though Mueller reached no conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice.
After a nearly two-year investigation, Mueller's findings seemed to dispel the cloud of conspiracy that has hung over the administration since its inception. But by delivering caveats alongside conclusions, the closing of the Mueller investigation opens the door to fiercer political fights over the president's judgment and power.
The four-page summary issued Sunday by Attorney General William Barr declared: "The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election."
The letter notes that Mueller's probe said no such conspiracy was found "despite multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign."
Barr said he and Justice Department officials separately determined that there was insufficient evidence to make an obstruction accusation against the president - though Mueller was not definitive on that point.
Trump spoke to reporters at a Florida airport Sunday afternoon, declaring that the dark cloud of suspicion that had hung over his administration since its inception had finally lifted.
"After a long look, after a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side, where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened for our country, it was just announced there was no collusion with Russia," the president said, declaring the findings "a complete and total exoneration."
"It's a shame that our country had to go through this, to be honest it's a shame that your president has had to go through this," Trump said, urging that Democrats be investigated.
On the question of whether the president might have sought to obstruct the high-profile investigation, Mueller's team did not offer a definitive answer.
"The Special Counsel . . . did not draw a conclusion - one way or the other - as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction," Barr's letter to lawmakers states.
"The Special Counsel states that 'while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him'," the letter says, signaling that Mueller's team apparently struggled with the issue.
"For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as 'difficult issues' of law and fact concerning whether the President's actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction," the letter says.
Mueller's decision to forgo a conclusion as to whether the president tried to obstruct justice struck a discordant note with current and former law enforcement officials, who noted that it was one of the primary reasons for appointing a special counsel.
"I think courageous people have the courage to make decisions, and those who don't punt decisions," said George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration with Mueller and Barr.
Since his appointment in May 2017 as special counsel, Mueller has wrestled with the question of whether the president attempted to obstruct justice once the FBI began investigating those close to him. Current and former White House officials who were questioned by Mueller's investigators were repeatedly asked about how the president spoke of the investigation behind closed doors, and whether he sought to replace senior Justice Department officials to stymie the probe, according to people familiar with the interviews.
Mueller "ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment" on the question of obstruction, Barr wrote, so the attorney general and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided.
Rosenstein and Barr "concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction of justice offense. 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.
Barr further explained that decision by writing that "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."
Barr's letter does not make clear whether Mueller asked Barr and Rosenstein to make a final determination on the question of obstruction.
"Over the course of the investigation, the Special Counsel's office engaged in discussions with certain Department officials regarding many of the legal and factual matters at issue in the Special Counsel's obstruction investigation," it says.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
The top two Democrats in Congress accused the attorney general of bias and questioned his judgment in deciding that Trump had not committed obstruction, alluding to opinion pieces and a private memo Barr wrote before he became attorney general that were critical of some elements of Mueller's work.
Barr's letter "raises as many questions as it answers," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "Given Mr. Barr's public record of bias against the special counsel's inquiry, he is not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report."
Schumer and Pelosi repeated their demand for the full report to be made public, saying "the American people have a right to know."
Trump's lawyers seized on a portion of the letter that said Mueller recognized "the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference." That is not necessary to charge the crime of obstruction, Barr noted, but he added that "the absence of such evidence bears upon the President's intent with respect to obstruction."
It was unclear whether the White House will get to review Mueller's full report. Justice Department officials have been silent on that question, though Barr's letter strongly suggests that he intends to release a redacted version.
Barr said the Mueller report appears to contain grand jury material that is barred by law from being released, and that he will work with Mueller to identify which portions those may be, as well as any portions whose public release might compromise ongoing investigations.
The attorney general said his "goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel's report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Department policies."
Brian Rabbitt, the attorney general's chief of staff, called White House lawyer Emmet Flood and gave him a readout of the letter at 3 p.m., a senior Justice Department official said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman also called her White House counterpart to notify her of what was soon to happen.
"That is the extent of the conversation between us and the White House on the report thus far," the official said.
Mueller's central mission had been to determine if Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election were aided or assisted in any way by Americans, including people close to Trump.
In all, Russian citizens interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, according to public records and interviews.
Of particular concern was the interaction between a London-based professor and a low-level Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos. According to court filings, the professor told Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Russians held damaging information about Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the form of thousands of emails.
Mueller also dug into a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York. Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyer after being told she had incriminating information on Clinton that was being offered as part of the Russian government's support for the GOP candidate, according to emails exchanged in advance of the meeting.
The lawyer has said she was not working on behalf of the Russian government. Trump Jr. and Kushner have said she did not provide any information about Clinton at the meeting.
Seeking to answer the collusion question, Mueller has also scrutinized the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which released batches of Democrats' emails that U.S. investigators say were stolen by Russian intelligence officers.
The special counsel's work led to criminal charges against 34 people, including six former Trump associates and advisers.
On Saturday, officials said that one of those cases - that of Trump's former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates - will be transferred from the special counsel's office to federal prosecutors in Washington. Gates pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and he continues to cooperate with prosecutors while awaiting sentencing.
A senior Justice Department official said the special counsel has not recommended any further indictments - a revelation that buoyed Trump's supporters, even as additional Trump-related investigations continue in other parts of the Justice Department, in Congress and in New York state.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a series of tweets he wanted Barr to quickly testify before Congress to explain what the lawmaker called "very concerning discrepancies and final decision-making at the Justice Department following the Special Counsel report."
Nadler said Mueller "clearly and explicitly is not exonerating the President, and we must hear from . . . Barr about his decision-making and see all the underlying evidence for the American people to know all the facts."
Republicans cheered the findings.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the findings a "good day for the rule of law. Great day for President Trump and his team. No collusion and no obstruction. The cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed by this report. Bad day for those hoping the Mueller investigation would take President Trump down."
Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the investigation was "long, thorough and conclusive: There was no collusion. There is no constitutional crisis."
He called on Democrats in Congress to now dial back their "sprawling" inquiries into the same issues.
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The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez, Paul Sonne and Drew Harwell contributed to this report.
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Video: Politicians took to the airwaves while waiting for more Mueller report details on March 24, with Democrats pushing for continued investigation and transparency and Republicans declaring it a vindication for President Trump.(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Video: President Donald Trump reacted to Attorney General William Barr's summary of the Mueller report on Sunday.(The Washington Post)
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Special counsel Robert Mueller has concluded his investigation without charging any Americans with conspiring with Russia to interfere in the 2016 campaign and help elect Donald Trump.
But hundreds of pages of legal filings and independent reporting since Mueller was appointed nearly two years ago have painted a striking portrayal of a presidential campaign that appeared untroubled by a foreign adversary's attack on the U.S. political system - and eager to accept the help.
When Trump's eldest son was offered dirt about Hillary Clinton that he was told was part of a Russian government effort to help his father, he responded, "I love it."
When longtime Trump friend Roger Stone was told a Russian national wanted to sell damaging information about Clinton, he took the meeting.
When the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks published documents that the Democratic National Committee said had been stolen by Russian operatives, Trump's campaign quickly used the information to its advantage. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Trump famously asked Russia to steal more.
Even after taking office, Trump has been hesitant to condemn Russia's actions, instead calling the investigation a "witch hunt" and denouncing the work of federal investigators seeking to understand a Russian attack on the country he leads.
The president has adamantly insisted there was "NO COLLUSION," as he has frequently tweeted.
And before the conclusion of Mueller's inquiry, Republicans pointed to comments from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who in February asserted that a lengthy investigation of the campaign by his committee has not located any direct evidence that anyone associated with Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia.
The details of Mueller's findings remain unknown except to relatively few people.
On Friday, after he submitted his confidential report to Attorney General William P. Barr, a senior Justice Department official said the special counsel has not recommended any further indictments. Barr said he plans to provide a summary of Mueller's major conclusions for lawmakers in the coming days.
In recent court filings, Mueller's prosecutors had hinted that they were pursuing active lines of investigation related to possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia.
One of the areas they were examining: the handoff by Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of 2016 polling data to a Russian employee who allegedly has ties to Russian intelligence. Another: longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone's alleged efforts to gather information about the material WikiLeaks held at the direction of an unidentified senior Trump campaign official, according to his January indictment.
Only a release of Mueller's report - which is not guaranteed - would fully answer where those inquiries led.
John Sipher, a former CIA officer who ran agency operations in Russia, said that counterintelligence investigations - which is how the Russia probe began - rarely lead to criminal charges, because they are largely intended to piece together information carefully and professionally hidden by foreign intelligence professionals.
"We are looking for a clean, legal answer - and it is something that is rare in these kind of cases," he said. "What we have seen so far is already ugly, despicable, unpatriotic and unethical. However, by bluster, lies and attacking the system [Trump] has convinced a large minority of people that anything short of an arrest means that he is totally innocent and nothing happened."
The continued use of the word "collusion" is distressing to former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, now a columnist for the National Review.
Connections between Trump's world and the Kremlin may be unsavory and disturbing, he said. "But when you are doing a criminal investigation, the only collusion that counts is a conspiracy to violate the laws of the United States." McCarthy said. "If you don't have that, you don't have anything."
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Soon after he declared his candidacy for president in June 2015, Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Trump said economic sanctions against Russia would probably be unnecessary if he were elected. And he echoed Russian talking points, criticizing NATO and the European Union. In July 2016, he said the people of Crimea - a region annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, sparking international condemnation - preferred Russia.
At the same time, there were interactions behind the scenes between Trump advisers and Russians that Moscow may have perceived as subtle messages that the Republican candidate would welcome Kremlin assistance.
Mueller's investigators have turned up repeated episodes in which Trump's advisers - both on the fringe of his orbit and in his inner circle - discussed the presidential campaign with Russian nationals and, at times, appeared eager for help from Russia.
In all, Russian citizens interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show.
One of the first to be approached was a low-level Trump foreign-policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, who was told by a London-based professor in April 2016 that the Russians held damaging information about Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, according to court filings.
The professor then connected Papadopoulos to a Russian think-tank director, and Papadopoulos worked for months in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to use his new connections to secure Trump or campaign aides meetings with Putin or Russians officials.
Court documents show that Papadopoulos kept his campaign supervisors briefed along the way. "Make the trip if it is feasible," campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis told Papadopoulos in August 2016, as the young aide advocated meeting with Russian officials in London or Moscow. Clovis's lawyer has said he was just being polite.
Meanwhile, Manafort, the man at the top of the campaign, was having ongoing interactions with a longtime Russian associate, the special counsel's investigation revealed.
Manafort, who had deep connections in Ukraine and Russia because of a decade spent as a political consultant in Kiev, communicated with the Russian throughout the six months he worked for Trump. The Russian was a Manafort employee who Mueller's prosecutors have said had ties to Russian intelligence, according to court papers.
In July 2016, Manafort instructed the employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, to offer private campaign briefings to a Russian business mogul to whom Manafort owed millions of dollars. The businessman, Oleg Deripaska, who is close to Putin, has said he never received Trump campaign briefings.
By August 2016, court documents show, Manafort had shared campaign polling data with Kilimnik, for reasons not yet publicly understood.
Manafort was convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud in a trial in Virginia in August and in September pleaded guilty to other charges in Washington: conspiring against the United States and obstruction of justice. The 69-year-old was sentenced this month to a total of 7
Meanwhile, Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen was aggressively seeking the consummation of a long-held Trump dream of building a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen pursued the idea well into the 2016 campaign, and, at one point, spoke directly to a Kremlin aide to ask for government assistance in advancing the lucrative project, prosecutors revealed in November.
Cohen and Trump business associate Felix Sater perceived the project as a way to boost Trump's presidential ambitions by demonstrating his close ties to a world leader, their communications show.
"I will get Putin on the program and we will get Donald elected," Sater wrote to Cohen in November 2015, according to an email turned over to congressional and Mueller investigators. "Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it."
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Many of the Russians who made contact with Trump advisers claimed to have material that would hurt Clinton's presidential bid.
Stone accepted a May 2016 meeting in Miami with a Russian man who had offered damaging information about the Democratic candidate. Stone declined the offer after hearing that the man wanted $2 million for his information and has since alleged that the meeting was an FBI setup. Records show the man had worked previously as an FBI informant, though there is no evidence he was serving in that role at the meeting with Stone.
Weeks later, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with a Russian lawyer in New York's Trump Tower after Trump Jr. was told she had incriminating information on Clinton that was being offered as part of the Russian government's support for the GOP candidate.
The lawyer has said she was not working on behalf of the Russian government. Trump Jr. and Kushner have said she did not provide any information about Clinton during the 20-minute session, held in a high-level conference room at Trump Tower.
Details about the episode have emerged in media reports and congressional testimony but were not cited by Mueller's prosecutors in court.
Damaging information about Clinton and Democrats did arrive via the stolen Democratic emails published online by WikiLeaks in July and October 2016.
Publicly, Trump's campaign cast doubt on assertions - made first by Democrats and later by U.S. government officials - that the material was stolen and distributed as part of a Russian plot.
Instead, Trump leveraged the information, seamlessly weaving it into his campaign messaging, riling up crowds by saying, "I love WikiLeaks."
On the very July 2016 evening that Trump held a news conference and mockingly called on Russia to try to find emails Clinton had deleted from her private server, Russian operatives hacked the servers of Clinton's personal office for the first time, according to court documents.
Mueller's investigation has also turned up new details about the campaign's quest to get intelligence on WikiLeaks' plans. Court documents show that after the group released Democratic Party emails in July 2016, a senior Trump campaign official was directed to press Stone to try to discover what else WikiLeaks held.
Stone "communicated with members of the Trump Campaign about [WikiLeaks] and its intended future releases," Mueller's prosecutors alleged in court documents.
Stone has pleaded not guilty. He and WikiLeaks have repeatedly denied that they communicated about the group's plans.
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After Trump was elected in November 2016, his aides began back-channel meetings with Russian emissaries, The Washington Post has previously reported.
Kushner met the following month in New York with the chairman of a Russian bank who Kushner was told could help restore ties between the two countries. He also discussed with Russia's ambassador in Washington the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump's transition team and the Kremlin.
In late December, when the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia for its interference in the campaign, incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn called the Russian ambassador, urging Moscow not to retaliate. Flynn then lied publicly and to the FBI about the conversation, he later admitted.
Mueller has not so far connected these episodes to Russia's election interference. But Russia experts have said that the Kremlin might have seen the warm reception from Trump's aides as a sign that Russia's efforts to help elect Trump would be rewarded with desirable policy outcomes.
Things have not worked out that neatly.
Economic measures put in place to punish Russia for its 2014 incursion into Ukraine remain in place, as well as new sanctions applied in retaliation for the interference in the election.
But Trump has continued to resist assigning blame to Putin for Russia's activities during the election and dragged his feet as Congress sought new sanctions. He has continued to denigrate NATO and stunned even GOP loyalists by appearing subservient to Putin at a summit in Helsinki in July.
The Post reported in January that Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the details of his face-to-face meetings with Putin even from his own staff, including once confiscating the notes of his translator after a meeting ended.
"I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton," Trump tweeted in January. "Maybe tougher than any other President. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. I fully expect that someday we will have good relations with Russia again!"