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Analysis

Democrats seize on new mantra after Mueller gut punch: ‘No exoneration’

WASHINGTON — For two years, President Trump has tweeted it constantly and practically shouted it from the White House lawn: No collusion!

On Sunday, the president’s “no collusion” mantra got the ultimate credibility boost: It appeared, in slightly different words, in a summary of the long-awaited report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In a four-page letter to Congress, Attorney General Bill Barr quoted a line from the report that said Mueller’s team had not established that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government in interfering with the 2016 election.

To Republicans, it was a victory 675 days in the making, with Sarah Sanders, the president’s press secretary, calling the report a total “exoneration” of the president and Trump’s allies chiding Democrats for overstating the case for collusion.

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For Democrats who have spent 22 months building up Mueller’s credibility, it was a jarring setback. But the summary, like so many things in the Trump era, seemed like another Rorschach test for a divided country: Where Trump’s allies celebrated “no collusion,” Democrats saw a mantra of their own: No exoneration.

Barr’s summary, they pointed out, also quoted a line from the Mueller report that said it “does not exonerate” the president on the issue of obstruction of justice. The special counsel instead declined to determine whether the president had illegally attempted to shut down the investigation into him — and left it to Barr’s Justice Department, which found there was not enough evidence to show obstruction of justice.

“This was an illegal takedown that failed,” Trump said Sunday evening. His campaign sent out a video mocking DNC chairman Tom Perez and other Democrats for confidently declaring there was evidence of the campaign’s collusion with Russia.

Democrats demanded Mueller’s report be released in its entirety and raised pointed questions about how Barr had determined so quickly that the president had not obstructed justice, when Mueller had apparently left the question open. They also pointed out that Mueller’s investigation led to the indictment or guilty pleas of six Trump aides, including his personal attorney, campaign chairman, and national security adviser.

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“Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers,” wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer in a joint statement. “The fact that Special Counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay.”

Barr’s letter seemed all but certain to further dampen Democrats’ enthusiasm for impeaching President Trump, which had already been flagging because party leaders including Pelosi said the process would be too divisive without a smoking gun that spurred a sense of bipartisan agreement on the effort. “He’s just not worth it,” she told The Washington Post earlier this month.

Still, Democrats renewed their commitment to continue their own investigations into the president on Russia and beyond. The House has already launched probes into Trump’s potential obstruction of justice, security clearances for family members, and Trump’s inaugural committee.

The findings are likely to shake up those investigations, with Democratic-controlled committees already girding themselves for a long legal battle to get the full Mueller report and its underlying documents.

A few hours before the summary was released Sunday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff said he believed there was “significant evidence of collusion” in an interview with ABC News. The Mueller report is a punch in the gut for Schiff, who will now face criticism from the right that his committee is picking at the carcass of the Mueller report in the hopes of keeping the collusion narrative alive.

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But Mueller’s punt on whether Trump obstructed justice has breathed new life into the obstruction investigation helmed by Representative Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary.

Nadler wrote on Twitter on Sunday that he planned to call Barr to testify before his committee, adding that the Department of Justice had left things “squarely in Congress’ court.”

And Stephen Lynch, the Massachusetts congressman, suggested investigations of Trump could continue well beyond Mueller’s purview.

“It is important to note that although the Special Counsel had a very narrow mandate to investigate possible White House-Russian collusion, the Oversight Committee, on which I serve, retains unlimited jurisdiction and may consider the available evidence beyond the collusion context,” Lynch said in a statement.

Trump also still faces potential legal peril in the future from the Southern District of New York’s investigation into the use of hush money during the campaign and other probes.

The news nevertheless lifts one of the many clouds hanging over Trump’s head right as Democrats are vying with each other to take him on in 2020. Those candidates hit a strikingly similar note on Sunday, calling for the full report to be made public and casting doubt on Barr’s summary of it.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren said she would not be satisfied by the synopsis from Trump’s “handpicked” attorney general. “A short letter from Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General is not sufficient,” Senator Kamala Harris wrote on Twitter. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota even filmed a short video of herself standing in front of the Department of Justice, demanding the report be released in full. “I want the whole damn report,” Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted.

These candidates, taking a page from the book of Democrats who flipped seats in the midterm elections, have not campaigned on impeaching Trump or allegations of collusion, instead focusing on selling their economic and social policies.

But in an appearance in Iowa last month, Warren suggested she did not like focusing on the president because he might soon be in jail.

“Here’s what bothers me: By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not even be president,” Warren told a Cedar Rapids crowd last month. “In fact, he may not even be a free person.”

Barr’s letter seemed likely to muffle comments like that — at least for now.


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com.