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Mueller Report Explainer: Why No Charges Against President Trump?

WASHINGTON - JULY 28:  FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee focusing on the oversight of the FBI July 28, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. In response to criticism that the FBI was unfairly targeting Muslims, Mueller stated during the hearing that the bureau's domestic surveillance was not targeting people based on race.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 22, 2019 3:00 PM

For many observers, the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was more of a Rorschach Test than a definitive document. Those who believe President Donald Trump acted improperly certainly found enough evidence to confirm that belief. And those who were convinced the entire investigation was a waste of time could point to the fact that the president wasn't charged with any crimes to support their position.

So how did the Mueller Report end up being all things to all people? And if it didn't exonerate the president, why didn't Mueller file charges? Here's a look.

Criminal Charges

The claim that the Mueller investigation didn't result in any criminal charges isn't completely true. Prior to the release of Mueller's final report, several people close to President Trump had been charged with various criminal offenses, including:

  • Paul Manafort: Trump's former campaign manager was indicted on 25 counts ranging from conspiracy to launder money to acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal; he pleaded guilty to two and was convicted of eight others;
  • George Papadopoulos: Trump's former campaign foreign policy adviser was charged with making false statements to the FBI; he pleaded guilty in 2017;
  • Michael Flynn: Trump's former national security adviser was also charged with making false statements to the FBI and Department of Justice; he also pleaded guilty to in 2017;
  • Roger Stone: Trump's campaign adviser Roger Stone was indicted on seven counts, including making false statements to Congress and witness tampering; and
  • Michael Cohen: Trump's former personal attorney and "fixer" was charged with making false statements to Congress; he pleaded guilty in November.

But, as of yet, there have been no charges filed against President Trump himself.

Prosecutorial Discretion

When it comes to the president, here is what the report concludes:

"Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

A traditional prosecutor's duty is "to seek justice" rather than merely a conviction, and they must refrain from prosecuting a charge that they know is not supported by available evidence. And the Mueller report is littered with the phrase: "the government would likely encounter difficulty in proving beyond a reasonable doubt." So Mueller is acknowledging that many charges against Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and Jared Kushner are not "slam dunk" cases. So, while many of the elements of obstruction of justice were present in the president's actions (enough for Mueller to say that if they were certain Trump didn't obstruct the investigation they would say so), investigators weren't certain either that they had evidence to charge Trump.

Indictment and Impeachment

And then there is also the matter of whether Mueller could've indicted Trump, even if he felt it appropriate. Constitutional scholars and Justice Department attorneys seem to agree that executive immunity bars a criminal indictment against a sitting president, but those limits haven't really been tested. So that may be why Mueller was "determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment." There are also concerns that Trump would not have the same ability to clear his name that a normal criminal defendant would, and that "a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President's capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct."

One of those constitutional processes would be impeachment. And, while Mueller's report may lay sufficient groundwork for impeachment proceedings (or a criminal indictment after Trump is out of office), Democrats (who now hold a majority in the House, where such a process would begin) don't seem too eager to impeach Trump.

Thus, the Mueller report doesn't conclude President Trump committed a crime, and it doesn't exonerate him either. So, whether you read the report and find all the elements for obstruction of justice charges, or think it was the "greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history," there's probably enough in the Mueller report to support your view.

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