How to Read Between the Lines of the Mueller Report
Here’s what to expect from the long-awaited—and now heavily redacted—probe into Trump’s Russia ties.
Twenty-three months after Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to release a redacted version of his long-awaited report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Whether you’ve been following every twist and turn of the investigation or are playing catch-up ahead of the big finale, Foreign Policy has compiled a cheat sheet of what to expect as we expect the Mueller report.
What, when, and where?
The report, which is expected to weigh in at nearly 400 pages, is due to be published on the website of the special counsel’s office sometime Thursday morning. The Department of Justice has not indicated what time the report will be released.
According to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s conclusions last month, the report is divided into two parts. The first details the investigation’s findings into Russia’s interference efforts. The second half of the report looks at public actions by President Donald Trump that raised concerns that he obstructed the investigation of his ties with Russia.
In a follow-up letter to Congress last month, Barr cautioned that his statement regarding the Mueller report “did not purport to be an exhaustive recounting of the Special Counsel’s investigation.” So the full report may contain some surprises.
But here is what is partially known or believed about its conclusions.
With the release of the Barr summary, Trump immediately declared victory, saying the Mueller report found that his campaign did not collude with the Russian effort to boost his 2016 presidential chances. Indeed, Barr quotes Mueller as concluding: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
That provided an early political win for Trump, but the full contents of the report may provide a new headache for the president.
The pattern of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, for example, may raise counterintelligence questions that were not previously understood. Additionally, the finding that no operatives “conspired or coordinated” with the Kremlin does not preclude that Mueller has uncovered previously unknown contacts between the campaign and Moscow.
NO OBSTRUCTION! Well, we think…
When Barr released his summary of the Mueller report, the attorney general controversially concluded that the evidence assembled in the report did not support the conclusion that Trump had obstructed justice by allegedly trying to derail the investigation.
But Barr then went on to say, in a sentence that launched a thousand cable TV conversations and set Democrats to insisting the full report be released quickly, “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Following the release of the Barr summary, some of Mueller’s investigators have privately disputed the attorney general’s description of their report, saying that it is more damaging to Trump than Barr made it out to be.
So when the report is released on Thursday, one of the most closely read portions will be Mueller’s observations on whether Trump may have obstructed justice. Many observers have parsed the “no exoneration” line as an argument by Mueller that it is up to Congress to decide whether Trump obstructed justice, potentially as part of his impeachment. The factual and legal analysis provided by Mueller will provide the basis for that congressional debate, and the future of Trump’s presidency may well turn on the Mueller report’s handling of the obstruction question.
If Democrats see in the report a factual, legal, and political basis for an obstruction charge, it may provide the seed for an impeachment proceeding.
Additionally, Barr’s summary says that “most” of the president’s actions that raised obstruction of justice concerns have been publicly reported. Most—but not all? Something to watch out for in tomorrow’s report.
The Kremlin’s reach
A rare point of consensus in all of this is that Russia did indeed seek to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. As assessment published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in early January 2017 concluded with a high degree of confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign to influence the election. The report was drafted in coordination with the CIA, the FBI and the NSA.
Russia’s efforts covered by the report largely broke down into two categories:
- The hacking and leaking of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, intended to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
- The efforts of the Internet Research Agency, better known as the troll factory, which runs bogus news websites and fake social media accounts to spread false information online. The trolls have latched on to a whole spectrum of issues, including gun control, the Confederate flag, the “take a knee” protests at the NFL, mass shootings, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many experts believe the aim was not to advance one side over the other but rather to sow chaos and entrench political divides.
It’s little surprise that of the 34 people indicted by the Mueller probe, two are Russian intelligence officers, and a further 13 are Russian citizens. If you hear the term “speaking indictments” on Thursday, that’s a reference to Mueller’s incredibly detailed indictments, which provided more information than is legally required in their case against the Russians. No definitive explanation for this has been given by the special counsel’s office, but speaking indictments can be used to paint a wider picture of the case at hand or as a way of signaling to Moscow, “We’re on to you.”
Tomorrow’s report will be redacted to keep sensitive information under wraps. Redactions will be color-coded to indicate why the information has been kept hidden, and they will fall into four categories:
- Information that intelligence officials fear could reveal their sources and methods
- Details that could infringe upon the privacy of “peripheral third parties” who have not been charged in the investigation.
- Any information that could get in the way of other ongoing investigations into Trump and his circle. (The Mueller investigation may be over, but several legal investigations into various aspects of Trumpworld are still ongoing.)
- Any information that has been presented to a grand jury.
The report has been redacted by the attorney general himself in conjunction with members of Mueller’s team. How much of the 400-page report is redacted is not yet known, but extensive edits will likely be the subject of controversy. (For those curious, it’s not yet known which colors will be used in the redaction.)
Mueller by number(s)
Mueller’s investigation lasted 22 months, and his team of 19 lawyers and 40 investigators interviewed some 500 witnesses, issued 2,800 subpoenas, indicted 34 people, and elicited five guilty pleas from the president’s former business associates and campaign staffers. The inquiry is reported to have cost over $25 million. Expense reports show the special counsel’s printing and photocopying bill ran into the tens of thousands.
Beware the hot takes
The Mueller report represents the most definitive document to date on a scandal that has nearly upended the Trump presidency and resulted in the indictment of five of his former business associates and campaign advisors. As a result, Mueller’s investigation and the report it has produced have become the subject of an intensely partisan dispute, which will immediately flare up with the report’s release on Thursday.
For that reason, readers are advised to treat the immediate reaction to the report on Thursday with immense skepticism. As veteran readers of long, detailed government reports on matters of intense public interest know, the report’s revelations may not become clear until after a detailed reading.
Trump and his partisan allies and enemies will immediately issue statements on Thursday attempting to shape the narrative around the report, and these statements are only important to the extent that they are understood as spin.
Is this the end of the Russia investigation?
While the special counsel’s office may have wrapped up its probe, don’t expect this issue to recede from the headlines anytime soon. Depending on what Thursday’s report says, the House Judiciary Committee may issue a subpoena for the unredacted report and its reams of supporting evidence, while House Democrats are continuing their probes of Trump’s finances, Russian interference, and allegations of obstruction of justice. Over in the other chamber, the Senate Intelligence Committee is working on its own investigation, which touches upon many of the issues also covered by Mueller.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack