Russia Probe

America Gets Ready for Mueller

The special counsel's report on two years of investigating Trump and Russian ties drops Thursday.


By this point tomorrow, America's focus will be on the contents of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller documenting the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and what role—if any—was played by people in President Donald Trump's orbit or campaign.

The Department of Justice said that the nearly 400-page, redacted report will be provided to both Congress and the public on Thursday. Attorney General William Barr has already previewed some of the contents, telling the public that Mueller's investigation did not find collusion or coordination between people on Trump's side and Russian nationals accused of hacking into the Democratic leadership's emails and publicly releasing them. Mueller also said the report does not find Trump colluded or coordinated the Russian nationals accused of running secret social media campaigns and attempting to hack into voting systems. Furthermore, while Mueller didn't come to a determination as to whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation, Barr said the Justice Department concluded there wasn't enough evidence for criminal charges.

Nevertheless, Barr's four-page summary was never going to put this thing to bed. Americans want to see the full report, and they have a right to.

Some thoughts in advance about what to expect from the report:

Remember, this is supposed to be about Russian meddling, not just Trump. It's easy to forget that Mueller's focus was, in part, to determine the extent that Russians attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. It was not solely about whether Trump or Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn or anybody else requested or had Russia's help in affecting the outcome. Expect a significant portion of the report to focus on what the Russians were doing independently of the relationship to Trump's campaign.

It's also important to remember that as a result of Mueller's investigation, 13 Russian nationals were charged with various counts of fraud, identity theft, and conspiracy for their efforts to influence the election. Another 12 Russian intelligence officials were charged with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

But really, we all want to read the Trump parts. Mueller's orders were to look for any potential links between Trump's staff and the Russian meddling.

In that sense, the investigation has been a bust for people who were hoping it would provide the ammunition to get Trump out of office. It's unlikely that the contents of the (redacted) report are going to differ that much from Barr's summary.

There were a number of people in Trump's orbit who were indicted as a result of Mueller's investigation. But none of the Americans charged with crimes connect in any way with the Russians who were charged with meddling. There are clear and obvious business ties between Trump and people in Trump's orbit and Russian officials, and some of those ties were pretty sketchy, but it appears that Mueller was not able to map out a direct connection between the two groups.

Did Trump and people around Trump hope to gain financially from a relationship with Russia? Most certainly. Did Russia hope a good relationship with Trump would influence American policy? Most certainly. But that's not the same as saying (or proving) that Trump, or people around Trump, coordinated anything illegal to alter the election outcome.

Expect a lot of chatter about the obstruction section. Because Mueller didn't decide whether Trump's attempts to stop the investigation count as obstruction, legal eagles and talking heads are going to examine that section with a fine-toothed comb for evidence that Barr is being inappropriately deferential to Trump.

That should make everyone uneasy. Not because of how we might feel about Trump, but because of how the federal government uses charges like obstruction and "making false statements" to throw people in prison when prosecutors are unable to prove the underlying crimes. Some people really, really want to believe that Trump must have done something to have kept Mueller from finding evidence of coordination with the Russians. So they are invested in trying to use obstruction to accomplish what the primary investigation could not: unseat Trump.

Some of the sketchiest federal indictments are due to this practice. James Comey (who Trump fired as FBI director) was responsible for indicting Martha Stewart and sending her to prison for obstruction of justice and lying to investigators, all over an insider trading case. Comey subsequently last year explained that he made the decision to charge Stewart because he had done so for less famous people who had lied to the FBI, so it wouldn't be fair to go easy on her because she was rich and famous. He didn't conclude that maybe sending people to federal prison for a year for lying was a terrible thing to do. He concluded that he wasn't doing it enough.

There will be redactions (and lots of them). Barr has made it clear the report will be redacted to conceal information presented to the grand jury, sensitive intelligence information, information that might compromise the privacy of some peripheral third parties, and information that could compromise other investigations.

The report will be color-coded so we'll know why parts are redacted. Democrats in Congress are already planning to demand access unredacted versions of the report. They should be permitted to see it. Arguably, Americans should be able to see more than we're going to see, just as we should be allowed to see more of what information the FBI used to justify surveillance on Trump's campaign staff in the first place. This could have brought down a presidency. We deserve to know how and why it happened.

This report is obviously not the last word. Trump's connections with Russia will remain a political issue for the remainder of his administration. Whether Trump's actions were corrupt, inappropriate, or just plain unpresidential are questions that can be answered in the voting booth.

In any event, when the report is released tomorrow, I'll be poring through it and pulling out the important bits for evaluation. I don't predict we'll learn anything we haven't already been told, or that we'll see any media responses we haven't already seen.