The Justice Department has announced that the Attorney General William Barr will release a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian election interference on Thursday. It’s still very unclear how much of the report we’ll actually get to read, or frankly, what it will say. Barr has said he will redact grand jury testimony, details that could harm ongoing investigations if released, sensitive information related to intelligence gathering and other material that could harm the “personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties”.
Still, Barr’s four-page summary of the report has opened up several key questions that will be worth thinking about when reading the 400-page document.
How should one characterise the multiple links between senior Trump advisers and Russian officials?
Barr’s summary finds that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”. But, given the extensive links between Russian officials and senior Trump advisers that have already been publicly exposed, how did Mueller’s team end up characterising those contacts? Did his team fail to find sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia? Or did his investigation prove that they did not?
The summary also says that Trump advisers declined several offers by Russian officials to assist the Trump campaign. We know, for example, that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer with Kremlin links who promised incriminating documents on Hillary Clinton. Are there other examples of such approaches, and how exactly did Trump officials respond? The Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia may not rise to the level of criminal activity – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are innocuous.
Why did Mueller decline to reach a conclusion on the obstruction of justice issue?
It is surprising that after 22 months Mueller should have left his job unfinished and declined to rule one way or another on the obstruction of justice issue. Why was his decision so complicated?
Barr’s summary writes that “most” of the actions by the president that relate to the obstruction of justice investigation have been reported on publicly – which suggests that Mueller has uncovered other, perhaps important, examples of Trump trying to influence the Russia investigation.
If it was so hard for Mueller, why was Barr so quick to conclude that Trump did not obstruct justice?
This is really part of a broader concern about the extent to which Barr’s decisions as attorney general reflect his partisan interests, or his desire to protect the president. Prosecutors in Mueller’s team have told the New York Times and other newspapers that the report was more damaging to the president than Barr’s summary suggests.
In 2018, before his confirmation as attorney general, Barr wrote a memo to the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein arguing that Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation was “fatally misconceived” and that usual obstruction of justice rules do not apply to the president.
While Barr’s summary of the Mueller report suggests that there were other reasons for his concluding that the president had not obstructed justice, his memo suggests a fundamental opposition to the special counsel’s work that may be influencing his actions now.
Barr’s remarks that he wants to investigate the FBI for “spying” on the Trump campaign are also revealing of the attorney general’s ideological standpoint, and suggest an apparent willingness to stoke concerns that the president is the victim of a witch hunt.
The summary will not provide any easy conclusions, but it could offer clues about the extent to which Barr’s handling of the Mueller report is primarily motivated by his respect for the rules governing special counsel reports, or by his political desire to limit damage to Trump.
Where are the wild cards?
Although it’s likely that lots of juicy details will be redacted, Mueller and his team have spent 22 months investigating Trump and his campaign team and so we can at least hope for a few more revealing insights into how the scandal-ridden 2016 Trump campaign operated, and into how a hostile foreign government came to wield such influence in American domestic politics.