Last Friday, Attorney General William Barr announced that the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was complete. Yesterday, Mr. Barr put out a summary of the Mueller Report that some likened to a book report because it was very short on content and long on unanswered questions. There was some good news for our country in his summary.
According to Mr. Barr, Mr. Mueller did not find evidence of any conspiracy or criminal cooperation between the Trump Campaign or the President of the United States and the Russian Federation or any others associated with that country to rig the election. Very good news, indeed.
Let that sink in for a minute as you contemplate what it would mean had Mr. Mueller found that the president did conspire with a foreign adversary to win the election. We as a country would be in a very difficult place today had the result of the investigation been different. At the same time, think what a low bar that is. Never in the roughly 240 years of our national existence has there been any need to investigate such a matter. It was inconceivable. Yet, today, celebrations ensue that the president did not sell his soul to the Russians. At least politically. But let’s take a big sigh of relief that it is a positive outcome.
Also good news is that Mr. Mueller was able to finish his investigation without undue interference. Or at least it appears that way, with one known exception that I will address below. I have faith in Mr. Mueller and his thoroughness (read Mr. Barr’s letter to see just how thorough). In my estimation, he is a man of integrity who carried out his mission as he saw it and did not seem to be distracted by the circus atmosphere the president created. (Mr. Trump owes him an apology. Instead last night he continued to attack him and the investigation in his public statements and on Twitter. Shameful.) From the Attorney General’s letter, it also seems that Mr. Mueller took a very narrow view of his assignment and focused primarily on Russian interference. As we have already seen, other crimes or unsavory activities were farmed out to the presiding jurisdictions for action. It remains to be seen what else may arise from other federal and state district attorneys but there are no new indictments, announced or sealed, pending from Mr. Mueller directly.
There are many, many caveats and unanswered questions that hang over the whole report. First and foremost is the fact that no one has seen it outside of a few people in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Neither we as citizens nor our representatives in the House and Senate have seen it. We do not really know what it says — only what Mr. Barr says it says. By releasing his letter as he did, he gave Mr. Trump and his supporters a very big political win. Everything that comes after, no matter how damning it may or may not be, will be considered “sour grapes” or otherwise discounted. I happen to believe that there will be considerable evidence of wrong doing within the Trump Organization and the Trump Campaign that we will find to be unacceptable behavior from a presidential candidate but may not rise to the level of criminality or a provable conspiracy. Why all the lying about Russia? By lots of folks at different times and in different places including countless Russia lies by Mr. Trump himself? My own opinion is that the lying was covering up financial relationships and business deals between members of the Trump family and organization and various nefarious Russian oligarchs and entities. Again, perhaps not criminal (although such a great volume of lying to the people of the United States should have some consequence), but at best inappropriate and unseemly. We just do not know and will not know until the report is available to all.
Remember that despite Mr. Trump’s claim that he was “totally exonerated” by Mr. Mueller he was not. Concerning possible obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller did not make a decision. Mr. Barr’s letter quoted directly from the Mueller Report to say that regarding obstruction, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” I will be one of several million Americans that will want to know how that non-decision came about. It is curious that a seasoned, respected, courageous prosecutor would collect a very thorough number of facts and then take a pass on recommending whether or not it reached the level of criminality. What gives? The context of Mr. Mueller’s remarks in this regard will be very important. This is where we don’t know if there was undue influence on the investigation. Was he told not to make a decision? Why did Mr. Barr make a decision that there was no obstruction of justice if the investigator did not say so? Attorney General Barr wrote a long legal dissertation about the investigation even before he was nominated to the position (some critics opine that it was his try-out and audition for the office in that he caught the president’s attention with it). In it he stated his belief that a sitting president could not obstruct justice while carrying out the prescribed duties of the office. (Such as firing the FBI director.) Some in Congress and elsewhere are worried that the “fix was in.” In their view, Mr. Barr was hired to protect Mr. Trump from liability in just such a case. Without the supporting documentation, we cannot know what transpired. Unfortunately, Mr. Barr muddied the waters of an investigation that was meant to clear things up. If we knew the context of Mr. Mueller’s “pros and cons” regarding obstruction, we may even find that his intent was to outline the road map for Congressional inquiries and possible action. Mr. Barr seems to have tried to short-circuit that possibility. In my view that was a political decision made in the president’s favor rather than a legal one that should have been left to Mr. Mueller.
Lost in the Tweets and punditry is the fact the report apparently concludes that the Russians did meddle in the election with the intent of helping Mr. Trump — or at least with the desired impact of helping to defeat Secretary Hillary Clinton in the general election. This should be a major focus of those purporting to want to serve our country. How did they do so? What recommendations are there for stopping or at least limiting future interference? If the president accepts the results of the conspiracy investigation why does he still refuse to acknowledge that the Russians did interfere even as every knowledgeable person in the intelligence agencies and the Congress say that they did? This should be the basis of serious action on the part of the administration and the Congress to protect the 2020 election. Will that happen in the midst of the political brouhaha that is occurring daily?
Pressure will be brought to stop further oversight by the House committees looking into the actions of the president and his aides as well as on the District Attorneys looking into possible illegal activities undertaken by the Trump Organization and Kushner, Inc. Those investigations should continue. Despite claims by Mr. Trump and his supporters, Mr. Mueller’s report does not seem to touch on those activities. If they were illegal or unethical, the public should know. If they are not, then it would seem that the Trump family would want that information to be forthcoming as well.
There is an awful lot that we do not know about the Mueller Report. Right now, no one outside of the DOJ even knows how many pages it is or the depth of the supporting documentation. With 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, 500 witnesses and other investigative work behind the report, it should be substantial and detailed. But we don’t know what we don’t know and there is no clear indication from the DOJ as to when or how much of the report will be made available.
Finally, while I do not really see the parallels between Mr. Trump and President Richard Nixon, I will merely point out that the Watergate scandal and investigation lasted a very long time. The original break-in occurred in June 1972. In October 1972 the FBI began to uncover the extent of the nefarious campaign efforts. In May 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was sworn in to investigate. In May 1974 the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings (whether or not to do it). In July 1974 on a bipartisan vote the House committee approved three articles of impeachment (the first was for obstruction of justice, the second was for misuse of power and not fulfilling his oath as president, and the third was for failure to comply with subpoenas). In August 1974 the president resigned. He was never impeached.
My purpose in relating this bit of info is not to advocate for impeachment but merely to say that the completion of the Mueller Report is only the beginning of the search for the truth about what did or did not happen. It takes a long time.
Unfortunately, I think that the way Mr. Barr released selected excerpts from the full report will only serve to harden the positions of those that support Mr. Trump as president and those that think he has conducted himself improperly in the White House. Nothing has been fully settled except — thankfully — the president and his aides did not directly conspire with the Russians to throw the 2016 election.
It seems to me that a lot is still on the table and that this is only the beginning of more to come. I fear that given Mr. Trump’s proclivity to lean towards autocracy, that the idea that he was “exonerated” and the victim of a “witch hunt” will only embolden him and reinforce his worst instincts.
I hope that I am wrong.