How to read the Mueller report.
When the Mueller report — or at least, most of it — is publicly released Thursday morning, it will become the most scrutinized US government document in recent memory.
Members of Congress, administration officials, journalists, and members of the public will all pore over the redacted report’s several hundred pages, seeking to understand what special counsel Robert Mueller found out about Russian interference with the 2016 investigation, and whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct justice.
So what should everyone be looking for?
As someone who has covered the Mueller investigation since it started, there are several broad questions on what it all means that I’ve had since Attorney General William Barr announced the probe’s “principal conclusions.”
First, on potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia, is the report’s takeaway that there was nothing there, or just nothing criminally prosecutable? Second, why did Mueller punt on obstruction of justice? Third, what did Mueller actually find on obstruction — and why do some of his team members reportedly think it’s “alarming and significant”?
The answers to all these will do much to shape our understanding of the investigation that’s loomed larger over Trump’s presidency than any other — assuming we’ll get satisfying answers at all. The fourth, and perhaps most critical question is how much of the report we’ll be able to read, versus how much will be redacted. That could determine just how conclusive the Mueller report’s release will feel.
1) Did Mueller conclude there was no collusion — or just that he couldn’t bring a charge?
The FBI began investigating whether any Trump campaign associates were involved in Russian interference with the election all the way back in July 2016. Barr’s letter, though, made clear that Mueller wouldn’t charge any American with criminally conspiring with the Russian government for such a purpose.
So President Trump and his allies have claimed vindication. They’ve argued that, just as Trump long said, this proves there was “no collusion.” Longtime left-leaning skeptics of the Russia probe have made similar claims, claiming Mueller’s findings “debunked” the “completely false and baseless conspiracy theories” about a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
But some commentators have cautioned against jumping to such a conclusion based only on Mueller’s decision not to file charges on the matter. “Without seeing Mueller’s full report, we don’t know whether this is a firm conclusion about lack of coordination or a frank admission of insufficient evidence,” defense attorney Ken White wrote at the Atlantic.
Indeed, it’s certainly going too far to claim there was “nothing” going on between Trump’s team and Russia. Mueller has extensively documented that the Trump Organization was secretly in talks for a potentially very lucrative Moscow real estate deal during the campaign, and that Russian government officials got involved. Meanwhile, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort handed over Trump polling data to a Russian intelligence-tied associate. Two Trump associates appear to have had some advance knowledge about Democratic emails that had been hacked by Russians. And, of course, there was the infamous meeting Don Jr. took at Trump Tower.
It’s entirely possible that despite all this, no actual conspiracy between Trump’s team and the Russian government to interfere with the election ended up happening. Mueller’s decision not to file charges could reflect that straightforward judgment: that he flat-out found no collusion. But it could also reflect a murkier situation, involving conflicting evidence, legal gray areas, or misconduct that doesn’t fit neatly into the category of “collusion.” The report should tell us more.
2) Why didn’t Mueller make a traditional prosecutorial recommendation on obstruction of justice?
The second question I’ll be looking to the report to answer relates to a surprising bit of information in Barr’s letter.
After making a “thorough factual investigation” into whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr wrote, Mueller “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” neither asserting Trump broke the law nor exonerating him.
Barr then stepped up to do that exonerating, saying that in his view, the evidence wasn’t sufficient to establish Trump committed an obstruction of justice offense. But what Barr did not explain is why Mueller decided not to come to a conclusion one way or the other here.
The attorney general’s letter says that Mueller evaluated “‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” and laid out evidence on “both sides of the question.”
So some have floated the theory that Mueller may have intended to leave this topic to Congress, not Barr, to evaluate, because it’s the legislative branch’s job to decide whether the president committed an impeachable offense. There’s no actual evidence for this right now, but the report may shed more light on what Mueller’s team expected here.
3) What did Mueller find out about obstruction of justice — and why do some on his team think it’s worse for Trump than Barr let on?
Then, of course, there’s the question of what exactly Mueller did find about Trump and obstruction.
Mueller team members have told associates their evidence here is “alarming and significant,” per the Washington Post. And some of them feel Barr’s letter to Congress didn’t properly describe “derogatory information,” according to CNN.
I recently wrote a longer piece summing up what we know about the obstruction case already — a lengthy pattern of apparent interference with the Russia investigation, encompassing Trump’s pressures on government officials, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, and his interactions with Russia probe witnesses and defendants.
Barr’s letter also says that “most” of the presidential actions Mueller analyzed in the obstruction report have “been the subject of public reporting.” But most is not all. And the Mueller report does include new material on this topic that’s not publicly known, one official told NBC News.
So I’ll be looking for any new information or evidence on this topic in the report that will help answer the question of why some Mueller team members seem so alarmed — and why Barr seems unperturbed.
4) How much will Barr redact, and will he explain each redaction?
Finally, hanging over all the above is the question of just how much of Mueller’s report we’ll even get to see.
Barr isn’t releasing the full Mueller report. He’s releasing a version that the Justice Department has redacted, to hide four main categories of information: grand jury material, information relating to ongoing investigations, disclosures that could compromise sources and methods, and material that compromises peripheral figures’ privacy rights.
During a congressional subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Barr testified that each redaction in the report would be accompanied by “explanatory notes” on the reason for the redaction (that is, which of the four categories it falls into).
Barr also reiterated that there are currently no plans to assert executive privilege to redact other information in the report. And he stressed that it wasn’t him personally deciding what to redact, but rather Justice Department officials, Mueller team members, and intelligence officials.
Despite all this, we don’t yet know whether redactions will be applied in a reasonable and limited way — or whether they’ll be overused to hide an excessive amount of information, with pages and pages blacked out. Liberally applied black bars can be cover for a whole lot of mischief.
One encouraging sign is that Mueller’s team reportedly prepared summaries of their findings that they expected could be made public quickly. If these are made public as part of the full report, they could remove any further ambiguity about what Mueller and his team believe they’ve found (even if the actual body of the report remains full of redactions).
Democrats and media outlets will likely try, through legal challenges, to see more of what’s under any redactions when the report is first released. But the sheer number of redactions will likely be key in determining whether the report’s release definitively provides closure to the Trump-Russia investigation — or whether it will only stoke further questions about what information is being held back.