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First Read’s Morning Clips: Federal workers protest shutdown

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TRUMP AGENDA: Federal workers protest shutdown

Federal workers are protesting the shutdown in Washington and around the country.

The shutdown has frozen HUD funds for low-income senior citizens, NBC’s Suzy Khimm and Laura Strickler report.

Today’s the day that federal workers start to miss paychecks.

Trump could take billions from disaster areas to fund the wall under a new proposal.

Trump’s border trip was mostly political, NBC’s Jonathan Allen writes.

The shutdown is pushing Trump-friendly farm country to the brink.

Critics say Trump’s administration is bending the rules to keep popular services going during the shutdown even as workers work without pay.

American forces have begun a Syria withdrawal, although details of the timeline are scarce.

Both Trump and Mike Pompeo took aim at domestic foes yesterday while praising foreign autocrats, the New York Times writes.

Trump allies are getting ready for a possible Supreme Court vacancy.

Steve King is on the defensive after saying in an interview: “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

DEM AGENDA: Democrats frustrated by AOC

Democrats are getting frustrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vow to primary moderates in her party.

Democrats want a delay in easing sanctions on a Putin ally.

2020: Warren heads to New Hampshire

Kirsten Gillibrand is looking at Troy, New York, for her potential campaign headquarters.

Sherrod Brown is heading to Iowa.

And Elizabeth Warren is getting ready for a weekend trip to New Hampshire.

And Jay Inslee is also hitting the road, heading to the Granite State on January 21.

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Mueller finds no proof of Trump collusion with Russia; AG Barr says evidence ‘not sufficient’ to prosecute

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By Pete Williams, Julia Ainsley and Gregg Birnbaum

Special counsel Robert Mueller found no proof that President Donald Trump criminally colluded with Russia and reached no conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice, Attorney General William Barr told Congress on Sunday, while also announcing that he found insufficient evidence to pursue the matter further.

The bombshell findings were contained in a letter that Barr sent to lawmakers summarizing Mueller’s report and that was made public.

Barr quoted Mueller’s report, which he said stated: “(T)he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

READ: Barr’s letter to Congress

The report makes it clear that Trump was not exonerated in his behavior, but simply found insufficient criminal evidence to prosecute.

On obstruction of justice, Barr wrote that the special counsel declined “to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” leaving it up to the attorney general to choose whether to bring obstruction charges against the president. Barr declined to do so, he said in the letter to Congress, based on the evidence presented and Department of Justice guidelines around prosecuting a sitting president.

Mueller did not, Barr said, “draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.”

“Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the (Mueller) 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,” Barr wrote. “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.'”

Trump tweeted a short time later “Complete and Total EXONERATION.”

Providing Mueller’s “principal conclusions,” as Barr has referred to them, to lawmakers came after the transmission of the special counsel’s report to Barr on Friday that concluded an investigation which has resulted in the indictments of 34 people, infuriated the president and threw the administration into turmoil.

It remains unclear whether Mueller’s full report will ever be made public.

The long-awaited end of the probe came almost two years after Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

Among those who have been criminally charged are Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn; former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; longtime ex-political adviser Roger Stone; former personal lawyer Michael Cohen; and numerous Russian nationals. There have been a number of guilty pleas and convictions — but none of the charges have directly accused Trump or anyone in his orbit of conspiring with Russians to help Trump get elected in 2016.

President Donald Trump departs the White House on Dec. 8, 2018.Al Drago / NYT via Redux file

There will be no more indictments now that the probe is over, NBC News has learned.

Download the NBC News mobile app for breaking news alerts and full coverage of the Mueller report.

According to Barr’s letter on Sunday, the special counsel’s office employed 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants and other professional staff.

In addition, Mueller issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communication records, issued almost 50 orders authorizing use of pen registers (which detail to whom and when someone made calls and from where), made requests of 13 foreign governments for evidence, and interview approximately 500 witnesses.

Trump refused be interviewed with Mueller — his lawyers said they were concerned about a “perjury trap” — but he did submit written responses to the special counsel’s questions in November.

Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17, 2017 — eight days after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director. Comey had been leading the investigation into Russian meddling and any possible Trump campaign involvement.

The president initially said he’d removed Comey at the urging of Rosenstein and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but he later told NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt it was his decision, and the president cited his frustration with the Russia probe.

That fueled law enforcement concerns that Trump was trying to obstruct the investigation — fears that were heightened a day after the firing, when he hosted two Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told them, according to The New York Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Those and other actions taken by the president since the probe began led Mueller to investigate whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice in the case, sources have told NBC News.

Tom Winter contributed.



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Mueller was clear in finding no collusion, but punted on the matter of obstruction

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By Ken Dilanian

On coordination with the Russians, special counsel Robert Mueller was clear, according to the attorney general’s letter to Congress Sunday: He 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.”

But on the question of obstruction of justice, Mueller, a Vietnam combat veteran who led the FBI after 9/11, did something that surprised many who know him. He punted.

He left the question of whether there was sufficient evidence that President Donald Trump committed the crime of obstructing justice to the attorney general, William Barr — a man who criticized the special counsel’s investigation before taking office.

Mueller didn’t draw a conclusion one way or the other on obstruction, Barr wrote, but instead set out evidence on both sides of the question. Barr said that was because Mueller considered those facts and legal questions difficult to answer.

Based on that, Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, decided that the evidence collected by Mueller did not establish that Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice.

One expert noted how curious it was that Mueller didn’t step into the obstruction issue.

“The whole point of the special counsel was to (mostly) take the investigative and prosecutorial decisions away from the Trump appointees,” said Gregory Brower, a former top FBI official. “Mueller and Barr will have to explain this.”

Democrats seized on this discrepancy, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., tweeting that he would call Barr to testify about his decision.

But the questions cannot change the legal result. Mueller worked for the Justice Department, and he made the decision, according to Barr’s letter, to defer to his superiors — like the Marine officer he once was.

Barr, Trump’s appointee, suggested the call was not a difficult one.

For one thing, he said in the letter, there was no evidence of the underlying crime of conspiracy, and “the absence of such evidence bears upon the president’s intent with respect to obstruction.”

He said Mueller didn’t identify actions that in Barr’s judgment were done with corrupt intent. That corrupt intent, Barr said, is required “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.”

Of course, one way to investigate a defendant’s intent is to interview him. Mueller did not interview Trump, and the reason that never happened was not covered in Barr’s letter.

The discrepancy on the obstruction question has given Democrats plenty of fodder to question Barr’s decisions.

One issue that is bound to come up is the fact that Rosenstein was considered by some a witness on obstruction, because he wrote a memo that Trump cited in firing FBI Director James Comey — a key point in the obstruction case.

But no amount of questioning will change the fact that the Mueller investigation is over. And, as a legal matter, the president is in the clear.



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What Barr might really have been saying in his letter about the Mueller report

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By Danny Cevallos

It has arrived. The “Barr Letter,” the much-anticipated sequel to the “Mueller Report,” came just two days after the final submission of the original report of the special counsel charged with investigating Russian collusion and obstruction of justice.

Among the blockbuster conclusions in the letter are the determinations by Attorney General William Barr that there was no obstruction of justice by the president. Glaringly, Barr’s letter quotes Mueller himself as stating that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The text of Barr’s summary is key. Barr may be offering hints within the text, and by what is also omitted in his letter. The president is not exonerated as to obstruction. The most significant inference for the House of Representatives is that the conduct could still be impeachable, even if it’s not criminal.

Here’s what Barr tells us without explicitly telling us:

Barr makes liberal references to Justice Department standards governing when to prosecute and when not to, adding that he applied the “principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions.”

Barr is essentially saying that there was “evidence on both sides of the question” of obstruction, but not enough evidence to conclude the President obstructed justice. That reference to the “principles of federal prosecution” is the first clue to understanding this conclusion.

According to those principles that guide federal prosecutors, the “belief that a person’s conduct constitutes a federal offense and (the) evidence will probably be sufficient to (convict) is not sufficient standing by itself to commence or recommend prosecution.”

To federal prosecutors, evidence “on both sides” is not necessarily probable cause to indict. Even where evidence does rise to the level of probable cause, those principles of federal prosecution stress that probable cause is “a threshold consideration only. Merely because this requirement can be met in a given case does not automatically warrant prosecution.” Federal prosecutors require more than just probable cause.

Reading between the lines, Barr could be saying that there was probable cause for a charge of obstruction of justice. Because the principles of federal prosecution require more than just probable cause, the evidence might have failed the more stringent test of the principles of federal prosecution, which Barr took care to cite.

Then there’s the “Constitutional” issue. Barr’s determination that there was no obstruction-of-justice charge wasn’t based on the question of whether it’s possible to indict a sitting president, he said.

The Justice Department’s long-standing policy, based on a 2000 Office of Legal Counsel opinion, is that a sitting president can’t be indicted. Barr says he never got to the point of considering that issue, which means that the obstruction issue was resolved without having to consider whether a president can be indicted.

But can a president can obstruct justice?

That’s a completely separate issue — though it’s easily conflated with the indictment issue. It also happens to be an issue to which Barr dedicated an unsolicited memorandum before he was attorney general. Barr concluded, among other things, that “simply by exercising his Constitutional discretion in a facially-lawful way — for example, by removing or appointing an official; using his prosecutorial discretion to give direction on a case; or using his pardoning power,” a president cannot be accused of a crime.

Because Mueller “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to obstruction, that left it up to Barr. He made that decision, telling us in the letter that he considered the “principles of federal prosecution,” (including those that require more than probable cause to indict), and never reached the issue of presidential indictment (but was silent on whether the president can obstruct justice).

This can be understood from the text of the letter and, arguably, from what was omitted from the letter.

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