Donald Trump now has a chance to recast the story of his presidency.
Just as he did on election night in 2016, the President has won a victory over the conventional wisdom of his critics, this time after special counsel Robert Mueller found there was no evidence that Trump had conspired with a hostile foreign nation – Russia – to win power.
The finding, delivered in a summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr, means Trump can finally try to move on from an intrigue that strangled his presidency from the start.
The report offered personal vindication to Trump and a powerful new political weapon to fire at his critics in the Democratic Party and the media at the start of his re-election campaign.
But the Democratic victory in November’s midterm elections will guarantee that the report is not the final word, as it might have been if the Republican still had a monopoly on power in Washington.
Democratic leaders are already demanding the full release of the report and are challenging Barr’s interpretation of Mueller’s findings.
Though Barr’s summary suggests that Mueller’s report is nuanced and does not completely exonerate the President on obstruction, the political symbolism is undeniable. The findings clearly lack the kind of bombshell that could have shifted lukewarm public sentiment about a potential impeachment process and will therefore have a profound impact on his presidency.
Trump’s critics will feel that the special counsel has handed the President a huge political gift. And it is. But another interpretation of the report is that if the President is not guilty of the crime he was accused of committing, the special counsel’s verdict would amount to Trump getting his rightful due after a legal process.
Partisanship aside, Mueller’s conclusion ought to come as a moment of huge national relief. An opposite assessment would have meant that the current President cheated with a hostile foreign power to subvert US democracy.
So the nation has likely escaped a long political nightmare that would have tested the constitutional system and worsened the current acrimony in politics, which sometimes feels like it is tearing the country apart.
The adamant clarity of Trump’s “no collusion” message, delivered almost daily in person and on Twitter in the last two years makes the political impact of Mueller’s findings even more potent for the President.
One big question now is how Trump will react. Will he seize the chance to reset his presidency, drop the inflammatory rhetoric that helped lose voters in crucial suburban swing districts in the midterm elections and try to broaden his support?
It seems more likely that Trump, freed from the shadow of the Russia scandal, will seek vengeance on those who targeted him. Fierce attacks on the journalism outlets that covered the Mueller investigation are already escalating among Trump aides and sympathetic media personalities.
One Trump adviser who speaks to the President regularly told CNN’s Jim Acosta that Trump could be expected to “slam and shame the media.”
In his initial reaction to Barr’s letter to Congress summarizing Mueller’s conclusions, Trump said it was a shame he had to endure “an illegal takedown that failed.”
Then he seemed to suggest that his victory lap could soon turn to retribution, even into an attempt to go after the Obama administration that was in power when the FBI first became concerned with Russian election meddling.
“Hopefully somebody is going to be looking at the other side … complete exoneration, no collusion,” Trump said.
But while Trump has won the initial battle over the report, the Washington warfare over its implications is only just beginning. Democrats in Congress are already demanding full publication of the report and promise to pick up the pace of their investigations now Mueller has left the stage.
The next political showdown is already centering on Barr’s decision making. Trump picked Barr knowing that he had produced a memo arguing that Mueller’s obstruction investigation was “fatally misconceived.”
It was Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, not Mueller, who decided that despite what appears to be some evidence of obstruction in the report, it was not sufficiently strong to lead to a slam dunk case. The decision is likely to earn both men a trip up to Capitol Hill to testify before Democrats who are deeply suspicious of Barr’s decision making.
Investigations now rest with Democrats
The validation of Trump’s claim that there was no collusion is certain to have a long lasting political and cultural impact.
It deals a blow to those Democrats and liberal media commentators who have long hoped the former FBI director would provide a death warrant for the Trump presidency. It also makes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent downplaying of the possibility of impeachment look like a shrewd political choice.
Trump’s critics are likely to see the report as yet another indication of the former real estate mogul and reality star’s capacity to seemingly sail up to the edge of serious wrongdoing – but always escape untouched.
Since investigating presidential misconduct is a political process and not a legal one, Democrats are within their rights to already be demanding the release of the full report and the underlying evidence for them to make their own decision.
Democrats are already walking a fine line of being seen to accept the decision by a prosecutor they have lionized over the last two years while seeking ways to examine the obstruction question more closely.
“We cannot simply rely on what may be a partisan interpretation of facts uncovered during the course of a 22-month review of possible wrongdoing by the President. The American people deserve to see the facts and judge the President’s actions for themselves,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said in a statement on Sunday.
The report does not represent a blanket endorsement of everything Trump said.
Mueller’s investigation also trashed Trump’s claims that he was leading a “witch hunt” and dismantled his insistence that Russian election meddling was a massive “hoax.”
The fact Mueller delivered such an assessment after two years of constant demonization from Trump and his supporters, tells a story of a judicial process, that unlike current politics, still operates on the basis of fact.
Mueller showed, according to Barr’s letter, that Russia did interfere in the election to hurt Trump’s opponent. If the probe was really a “witch hunt,” he would have found a way to persecute the President whatever the facts said.
White House cranks up political victory message
In an ideal world, the report would drain the poisoned legacy of the 2016 election. But the subject is so emotive – and there is still so much suspicion still lurking around Trump’s behavior – that such hopes will prove to be in vain.
Still, any criminal suspect, who had just been informed that they would not be charged after two years in the sights of one of America’s top prosecutors, would consider he had won an unequivocal victory. That is where political assessments should begin for the impact of the report on Trump.
But true to form, the White House mischaracterized the content of the Barr letter as soon as it was released.
“The special counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction. Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
“The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States.”
Sanders’ cavalier interpretation of the facts will not matter from a political perspective – the top line narrative that Trump was cleared is already being used by his campaign as his principle building block for re-election.
It’s also possible that Trump’s win here does little to reshape perceptions of his presidency – given that it is divisive on a multitude of issues and that he has never tried to change the minds of voters that reject him.
The President is likely now to argue that the investigation should never have been started at all. He will surely seize on the report to further discredit the “Steele dossier” that suggested that he was compromised by Russia, and claim inaccurately that it was the sole trigger for the FBI investigation.
Speculation is also mounting that Trump could seize on his new momentum from the report to pardon associates caught up in Mueller’s web in crimes unrelated to a conspiracy to collude with Russia.
That could include his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort who is facing a total of seven-and-a-half years in prison for tax, fraud and conspiracy and obstruction offenses.
Trump’s former political adviser Roger Stone will go on trial in November charged with lying to investigators about his contacts with Wikileaks, which published Democratic emails stolen by Russia.
Aides said Trump was vindicated and happy, though there was some concern that in his victory lap and excoriation of the media that covered the Russia investigation that he could overshadow his own political win.
But the partial glimpse of the Mueller report provided by Barr leaves a host of questions unanswered. It is not clear whether the special counsel did not address them, or included answers in his report.
The most intriguing question is why did Trump – in the knowledge that there was no collusion – act in such a panicked and vindictive way, prompting suspicion that he was trying to cover something up?
Why did he lean on and ultimately fire former FBI Director James Comey, then say that he did it because of the Russia investigation? That disastrous decision led to the Mueller investigation, which did not just send some Trump associates to jail, it led to tributary prosecutions in other jurisdictions into the President’s personal and business life that could still bring significant legal damage.
Another unresolved issue is why did so many people, including the President himself, lie about multiple contacts with Russians, and then seek to cover them up, for instance a meeting in Trump Tower between his campaign team and Russians offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
It remains possible that the Mueller report will show that despite not committing criminal violations, the Trump 2016 campaign is guilty of grave ethical breaches that might have influenced the course of a narrow election had Americans known about them at the time.
It is not clear whether Mueller looked into the question of Trump’s solicitous behavior towards Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign at the same time he was trying to seal a lucrative real estate deal in Moscow – a fact that emerged after the prosecution of his ex-attorney Michael Cohen.
Until the report is not fully released, there will be no answers to such questions and the political intrigue around the White House over Russia will simply grow, despite the President’s moment of vindication on Sunday.