The investigation into potential collusion between Russia and President Trump's campaign made major news again on Tuesday. Reportedly, special counsel Robert Mueller said Trump was not a criminal target at the current moment. But that doesn't mean the president is off the legal hook just yet.
The Washington Post's initial story cited "three people familiar with the discussions." According to those sources, Mueller told Trump's lawyers in early March that he did not consider Trump a criminal target. Rather, Mueller viewed Trump as a "subject" — a person who has "engaged in conduct that is under investigation," but someone for whom there is not "sufficient evidence to bring charges," according to Carol D. Leonnig and Robert Costa at The Post.
Leonnig and Costa reported that this revelation took place during a negotiation to procure testimony from Trump himself. However, they also reported that Mueller indicated he was working on a report detailing possible obstruction of justice, and that he pressed Trump's lawyers for an interview with the president in order to conclude that particular part of the investigation. According to CNN, some topics Mueller wants to discuss include Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey and the president's communication with other intelligence personnel.
Reactions to the news of Trump's current non-criminal target status have run the gamut. One point many observers made was the temporary nature of this assessment — and how a "subject" can become a "target" any time.
Appearing on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, former Richard Nixon special counsel official John Dean said the revelation that Trump isn't currently a criminal target "doesn't mean a whole lot in this context." Dean noted that Trump cannot technically be indicted, which would make it very hard to classify him as a criminal "target" — someone who will "likely be indicted." A little later on the show, former CIA counterterrorism official Phil Mudd said if it were him under investigation by Mueller, "I'd wet my pants," regardless of the "target" vs. "subject" differential.
Writing at New York Magazine, Margaret Hartmann makes the case that Mueller could be using the lesser threat of a criminal subject classification to "bait" Trump into an interview. She writes, "Mueller may be baiting Trump into sitting for an interview... by betting that he wouldn’t understand the difference between a target and a subject." According to the original Post story, Trump has told friends he's "relieved" by the non-criminal target designation and thinks an interview with Mueller would help absolve him in the case of potential Russian collusion.
But there are others who think news that Trump's not a criminal target of Mueller's investigation marks a major turning point. At the conservative Commentary, the magazine's editor John Podhoretz writes, "This story could very well be game over for everyone who has hoped against hope that the Mueller probe was going serve as the deus ex machina of the #Resistance and surgically remove Trump from the presidency." Notably, Podhoretz is no Trump fan.
Mueller may not be able to personally indict Trump, but a federal grand jury could, theoretically at least, do just that. Podhoretz concedes that Trump might still get himself there, should he agree to an interview with Mueller and perjure himself, given his "highly problematic relationship to the truth."
Short of that scenario, those who expect Trump's demise to come via Mueller's investigation might have to rely on enough evidence against the president in the special counsel's report for the House of Representatives to kick off impeachment proceedings. While Republicans retain control of the lower chamber, that remains unlikely. But as Hartmann points out at NYMag, should Democrats win in the midterms, it's possible they'll have enough evidence to get the process underway immediately.
In the meantime, Trump is not one of Mueller's criminal targets — for now.