It’s here. It’s finally here. And no I’m not just talking about the new season of “Game of Thrones.” On April 18, 2019, the Department of Justice released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on the two year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Previously, the only information available to the public was Attorney General William Barr’s four-page letter to Congress summarizing the key findings of the report. In the letter, Barr claimed that the investigation did not find that the Trump campaign had conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. He also acknowledged that while Mueller had declined to make a decision about prosecuting Trump for obstruction of justice, he ultimately did not find the president’s conduct to be criminal. Naturally this raised a lot of eyebrows. How could people trust the findings of a man appointed by Trump, especially when they had not seen the report themselves?
Well, that particular can of worms has been opened and now all of America gets to read between the lines (literally, according to the New York Times about 10 percent of the report was redacted) and come to their own conclusion. If however you don’t feel like reading 448 pages of peak political drama, then stick around as I break down some of the key findings from the report as explained by The New York Times and Vox. Since the report has more moving parts than a Christopher Nolan film, this article will be divided into two sections, the first examining the charges of collusion and the second, obstruction of justice.
Was Barr telling the truth when he said, “There was no evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government’s hacking”? For the most part, yes. Mueller did write in his report that, “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” However, Barr did leave out some crucial details. For one, he clipped the actual quote. In the full quote, Mueller wrote that the Russian government expected to benefit from Trump’s win and worked to secure that outcome. He also said that Trump’s campaign expected to benefit from “information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” According to Vox, Barr’s omission of context changed the tone of Mueller’s quote. In fact, I would go one step further and argue that Barr’s framing ultimately paints Trump’s campaign in a favorable light and dangerously bolsters the claim that the investigation was a “witch hunt.”
Furthermore, it is important to note that while there was no activity that met the legal definition of conspiracy or coordination, Trump’s campaign actually had significant contact with Russia. According to The New York Times, Donald J. Trump and 18 of his associates had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks through 2016 and the presidential transition period. Trump himself had at least 17 contacts. As for the Trump campaign’s actual involvement in the WikiLeaks hacking into the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the picture is a bit murky. Mueller himself does not suggest that any Trump officials were involved in the hacking but this portion of the report is heavily redacted. What we do know, according to Michael Flynn, is that Trump had previously repeatedly asked for his advisors to uncover Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. Thus, while the president will not be indicted on charges of conspiracy or coordination with Russia, these findings are a far cry from the “total and complete exoneration” that Trump claimed the report granted him.
Despite the black ink covering a great deal of the report, no one seems to be contesting Mueller’s no collusion conclusion. However, Barr’s claim that there is no valid case for obstruction of justice is an entirely different matter. The report reveals a pattern of deceptive and alarming behavior from Donald Trump in an attempt to end the investigation. According to The New York Times, Trump’s staff was the only thing that stood between Mueller and an unceremonious firing. He first tried to get Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, to fire Mueller in 2017 but McGahn refused to comply and resigned. Apparently a strong proponent of the “if you don’t succeed, then try try again mantra,” Trump then tried to push two other advisors into telling Jeff Sessions to end the investigation. Both advisors declined to do so. When these efforts were revealed to the press, Trump attempted to pressure McGahn into lying publicly. While he may have been unsuccessful with McGahn, there are plenty of others who are willing to lie for Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary, admitted to making a statement “in the heat of the moment that was not founded on anything.” These pervasive lies suggest that for Trump, justice is a far smaller concern than any threat to his presidency. In fact, upon learning that a special counsel had been appointed, President Trump said “I’m fucked.” Now, I’m no Elle Woods but those don’t exactly sound like the words of an innocent man.
The final reveal of Mueller’s report is in some ways a mixed bag. On one hand, concerns about direct collusion with Russia have largely been put to bed. On the other hand, many unanswered questions about the exact nature of the involvement between Trump’s campaign and the WikiLeaks hacking remain. Perhaps most troubling is William Barr’s decision to ignore charges of obstruction of justice despite the abundant evidence of deception and interference. Trump’s attempts to halt the investigation through political pressure and bald-faced lies are not simply markers of an untrustworthy president. They represent a consistent and deliberate plan to bury the truth. Either Barr has made a short-sighted decision or we live in a world where routinely lying to your people is perfectly legal. For all of our sakes, I hope it’s the former.