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. 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.
(Image: Alex Wong/Getty)
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.