Eighty-eight words. That’s all we have of the Mueller report. After 22 months of near-total silence, Robert Swan Mueller, III, has spoken — just not to us. Last Friday, he submitted a report of unknown length on his investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr [NOTE: It’s reported to be more than 300 pages long, in fact, apparently longer than required by the Special Counsel statute]. Barr in turn has deigned to make public a few extracts of the report, sprinkling a bit of it into his own letter to Congress.
The crux of the Mueller report, as conveyed by Barr, lies in two sentences. The first, that the investigation “did not establish” that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. As to whether the president obstructed justice when he tried to derail the investigation, Mueller notes that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
With his feral flair for spin, President Donald Trump moved quickly to ignore the actual conclusions and market the Barr letter with its grand total of 88 words from Mueller as a “complete and total exoneration.” Or as one Twitter wag put it: “Classic Trumpian paradigm: ‘I got away with it = I didn’t do it.’”
Pay particular attention to two of Mueller’s phrases: “did not establish” and “did not exonerate.” Lawyers will know that those two phrases actually hint at the opposite of a complete Trump vindication. The first suggests that there was in fact some proof — just not enough to establish criminal wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt. We do not know how much evidence Mueller uncovered, but his wording intimates more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, he would have simply said there was no case to be made. He is, after all, a famously direct and to the point man. As for “did not exonerate,” that’s as close as a prosecutor gets to saying, “You were in the wrong, but we can’t convict.”
All told, the small parts of the Mueller report that peak out from Barr’s letter suggest difficulty building a criminal case but nothing even close to a clean bill of health. That’s why releasing the full Mueller report is so important. While the headline is clear — no more indictments — the details matter enormously. It’s not far different from a visit to the emergency room where an ER doctor tells you: “No, you’re not having a heart attack right now but look at that cholesterol level, artery blockage, shortness of breath, and, oh there’s a spot on the X-ray.” Great to learn about no heart attack; not smart to walk out before hearing the rest of the diagnosis.
Mueller’s eighty-eight words of consultation filtered through a second party are not enough. And the need for a comprehensive account of what the investigation found has only been made more urgent by President Trump’s recent series of attacks on the very idea of the investigation. On Sunday he called the investigation “an illegal takedown that failed.” The following day he threatened retaliation. “There are people out there who have done very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country. And hopefully, people that have done such harm to our country — we’ve gone through a period of really bad things happening — those people will certainly be looked at,” the president said.
Full disclosure of the Mueller report would reveal whether a host of concerns — about Russian attacks on our election system, Russian efforts to infiltrate and work with the Trump campaign, the campaign’s response to those efforts, and finally Trump’s efforts to pervert the administration of justice for his own purposes — were valid or not.
A decision on when and how much of the report to release rests in the hands of Barr — who is also, presumably, the man on the receiving end of the president’s demand to investigate the investigators. During his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Barr told senators that his goal with regard to the Mueller report “will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.” A larger challenge lies before him: to provide as much transparency as he can for the health of our democracy.
The deadline six House committee chairs set for Attorney General William Barr to turn over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report is April 2, but Barr has already informed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler that he’ll miss the deadline. Barr also will not commit to providing Congress the full report, and only provided Nadler the report’s official page count on the condition that he not share the number publicly.
Nearly a week after Mueller submitted his report, all we know about it, beyond what’s in Barr’s highly political three-and-a-half page summary, is that it is somewhere between 300 and 1000 pages long.
This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and it’s past time for House Democrats to use their official powers to either obtain the report itself, make its details public, or get some answers from the Justice Department.
Here’s what Democrats can do.
- Subpoena the report. This is the most obvious step they can and presumably will take, but it would likely tee up lengthy legal battles over what the administration has a right to withhold. On the other hand, the threat of a subpoena might allow Democrats to secure a public and airtight commitment from Barr to share the entire report minus the narrowest omissions (say, to protect ongoing investigations) by a specific date.
- Subpoena Mueller. There has been a lot of chatter about Barr’s forthcoming testimony to Congress, but he has already revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator. Mueller remains widely trusted, but he can’t speak out of turn. Subpoenaing him would unshackle him, personally, and leave it to the administration to decide whether to silence him—but by silencing him, they’d give up the game.
- Begin impeachment proceedings. House leadership has made clear that Democrats are terrified of impeachment, but that may be the only way they can successfully secure Mueller’s grand jury materials, which are otherwise bound by strict secrecy requirements. That’s what happened during Watergate, and it should be on the table today.
- Lose their shit. It sounds silly, but a sustained Democratic message that the administration is hiding something, and that they must release the full report might just work better than anything else. Last year, Republicans generated days of anticipation by making the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo go viral. This was about an absurd, conspiracy theory-ridden document that their own party wrote, but they were able to create a widespread sense that the government was hiding something explosive from the public. That’s what’s actually happening now, and Dems shouldn’t shy away from building public pressure.
The Democratic toolbox also includes holding Barr and other officials in contempt of Congress and threatening to withhold funds from certain Justice Department components or programs. But the key is to demonstrate that concealing Mueller’s findings is unacceptable, and they won’t get away with quietly burying it. Asking nicely, which has been the Democrats’ disappointing approach to oversight thus far, will not suffice here.
Today, Republicans on the House intelligence committee publicly called upon the committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, to step down at a hearing that was supposed to be about whether President Trump’s business negotiations with Moscow—which he lied about throughout the campaign and well into his presidency—left him compromised.
Schiff’s response was to deliver Republicans the shaming they deserve.
Hopefully this is a lesson Democrats will heed about who they’re dealing with. When they returned to power, Democrats set about trying to restore comity on their committees, after enduring years of Republican abuse. They were not rewarded for their kindness because Republicans understand that they’re not there to make friends. [End quote]