WASHINGTON – United States President Donald Trump is off the hook. Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t.
That seems a fair, concise reading of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, at least as summarized on Sunday by Attorney General William Barr.
Understandably, the first half of this formulation is getting the most attention right now, but the second half is equally important for America’s leaders and citizens to keep in mind in the months ahead.
First, the Trump half. It’s impossible, of course, to draw definitive conclusions until the real Mueller report is released, in its entirety or at least in bulk.
But for now, the bottom line Barr described in his summary on Sunday is about as good as it could be for Trump.
For two years, the president did a masterful job of framing the debate to suggest that the only question that really mattered in the Mueller probe was whether there was a direct conspiracy between him and Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
That was something of a gamble, and now it has paid off. The Mueller report appears to have been definitive in answering the question as the president framed it: There was no conspiracy.
There is a second big question, one on which Trump’s opponents have focused with equal intensity: whether the president tried to obstruct justice by thwarting the Mueller probe.
On this score, the special counsel was more equivocal. Mueller “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other” on whether the president tried to obstruct, Barr indicates.
Certainly, the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in full public view is the reason the obstruction suspicion exists in the first place, and nothing has changed there.
And Trump spent two years excoriating the Mueller team and exerting outside pressure on it.
Yet now, ironically, Trump can use Mueller’s personal integrity as a kind of shield against any attempts by Democrats to push the obstruction allegation forward.
The president now can argue that, if there was no underlying crime to begin with, there was nothing to obstruct. And, he can argue, if Mueller – whom Democrats have been lauding as a man of honor – found no obstruction case, then pursuing the charge in Congress will amount to political gamesmanship and an example of zealotry.
As both a practical and political matter, the chances that Trump will be impeached were reduced dramatically, to nearly zero, when Barr released his summary on Sunday.
The president’s future now seems sure to be determined at the ballot box, by voters.
The more subtle problem is that the obsession with Trump and his personal fate is deflecting attention from the crime Mueller did find, and apparently beyond reasonable doubt: that Russia tried, on two separate fronts, to interfere with the US electoral process in 2016.
This amounts to a kind of attack on the US by a sovereign state and is no small thing.
First, the Barr summary says, Russia engaged in a disinformation and social-media campaign “to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election.”
That sentence bears close reading: Russia set out to create divisions within America and then later decided to actually try to steer the election’s outcome.
Second, Russia hacked into the computers of Democratic organizations and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and disseminated the stolen emails.
These two conclusions have been widely assumed, but Mueller is giving them a nonpartisan stamp of confirmation.
Let’s put them in context: Broadly speaking, Putin “operates on the conviction that the US took advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness in the 1990s,” says William Burns, former ambassador to Moscow and deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
So the Russian leader nurses a deep grievance about Moscow’s fall from prominence – a grievance that was compounded when he thought the US was supporting pro-Western uprisings in Russia’s backyard, in Ukraine and Georgia in the early 2000s.
His grievances later were directed toward Clinton personally when she, as secretary of state, joined in international criticism of Putin’s controversial re-election as president in 2012.
He seems to have viewed that as interference in Russian political affairs, and there’s every reason to believe he decided to get even in 2016.
He may or may not have affected the election’s outcome, but he surely has succeeded in sowing strife within the US.
“So Putin has to be feeling good with today’s news, although he remains somewhat vulnerable at home as a result of his near total failure to build a modern economy,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Now the situation seems to call for what Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration (and no relation to William Burns) calls a “major effort” to mobilize all levels of government and Western allies to ensure Russia doesn’t repeat the exercise.