Lessons Learned From The Mueller Report

Also, the biggest unanswered question. The biggest irony. And the most ludicrous bit.

Cover page of Mueller report

First of all, here’s a link to the entire report. (You can also link to it by clicking on the photo above.) All 488 pages of it. It’s divided into 2 “Volumes”: the first having to do mainly with hacking and interventions in the 2016 campaign, the second focusing mainly on obstruction.

So read 1/2 a “Volume” each, each of the next 4 nights, and you should get through it easy. And then you can make your mind up for yourself. Because you’re gonna hear all sorts of things. And there’s no doubt lawyers and political pundits will be arguing about it for years. Especially if the House Judiciary Committee subpoenas the whole, unredacted report, and the Justice Department resists, triggering what could become a huge and lengthy court fight that could redefine parameters of Presidential powers. Attorney General Bill Barr has promised them a “less redacted” version, but according to Democrats on the committee, it hasn’t yet materialized.

Anyway, that’s how we’re reading the entire report. But for today, we’re kinda jumping around.

The release of the report was preceded by a news conference by Attorney General Bill Barr, which was odd even in the concept itself: because how is the media supposed to ask intelligent questions about something they hadn’t seen yet? The Justice Department attempted to head that off by saying Barr’s intent was to explain the procedure by which the report was “lightly redacted” (although there are whole pages which are almost completely blacked out), prior to its release.

Lightly redacted?

But, that’s not what the news conference turned out to be, really at all. Instead it seemed to be an effort by Barr to front-run the report in order to resolutely defend his decision to go easy on the President, even though the report gave him a lot of leeway to go in the other direction, although did not expressly recommend it. Barr painted Trump more as a victim who acted out of “frustration”, than a potential perpetrator of anything

As Fox’s Chris Wallace put it:

The Attorney General seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the Attorney General, talking about his motives, his emotions… Really, as I say, making a case for the president.”

And that’s true. At the same time, we’re not so sure that for Barr, this is really specifically about Trump. Rather, the Attorney General may have decided the way he’s going to leave his mark on this world is by zealously shaping the definition of and expanding Presidential powers. That argument is at least somewhat supported by his unsolicited memo delivered to the DOJ about a year ago, which starts by proclaiming he is
“deeply concerned with the institutions of the Presidency and the Department of Justice”.

The reason we started today with all this context is it’s really not enough to look at the report on its own (although we still urge you to do so), but rather in the context of this extraordinary Presidency.

And that’s where the lessons lie, not in the report itself.

So what are the real lessons we learned?

  • It’s OK to lie. That in itself is nothing new, and is a cornerstone of politics. So maybe now it’s OK to really lie. And viciously call the people who call you out as a liar, worse than liars. “True enemies of the people”, maybe. To repeatedly and ferociously decry things as “fake news” that then turn out to be perfectly true. Like, for instance, that Trump ordered former White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, and that McGahn refused. (Which means McGahn quite literally probably saved Trump’s ass.) Which Trump to this day has never admitted actually happened, yet the Mueller report just did. Lying’s only not OK if you’re perjuring yourself: lying to the F.B.I. or the Special Counsel or Congress or a Grand Jury. Which is where most of the convictions of Trump compatriots convicted related to the Mueller investigation have come. Which is why Trump refused to be interviewed one-on-one by the Special Counsel, and instead only submitted written answers to written questions (which we’ll talk about in a sec.) Although the President himself repeatedly said he was “looking forward” to talking face-to-face, his own lawyers knew they couldn’t let that happen simply because they knew there’s no way Trump can’t not lie.
  • It’s OK to participate in the dissemination of illegally obtained information as long as you didn’t participate in obtaining that information yourself. Says Barr: “Under applicable law, publication of these types of materials would not be criminal unless the publisher also participated in the underlying hacking conspiracy“. The Mueller report is chock full of incidences where Trump team members has dalliances with Russians bearing gifts of opposition dirt, and many times expressed interest in and took those gifts–“receptive” is the word Mueller uses. But they couldn’t be linked to the actual hacking. But why would they? They knew they had the best hackers in the world acting on their behalf.
  • Russia! This ties in directly with the lesson above. Because the Mueller report absolutely, unequivocally presents the strongest evidence yet that Russia interceded on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election. Maybe not more than we’ve suspected, but more than has been previously proven. And while there’s no way of ever proving it’s why Trump won, it’s the strongest evidence yet that Russian interference did have an impact on the outcome of the election. But as we’ve said many times, you can’t just throw Trump out based on that: however he won, he won. The bigger, and more perilous question is what happens in 2020? Does Trump really, actively want to fight Russia coming in and helping him again? Let’s say that he does. Isn’t that the job of the Department of Homeland Security? To defend against international cyberattacks on the U.S.? But isn’t DHS–at Trump’s direction–singularly focused these days on asylum-seekers at the Southern Border? So it’ll largely be up to the media to monitor that. And when they raise alarms Trump’ll say they’re making it up. And we’ll be back in a loop.

Trump, BTW characteristically sluffs responsibility for all of this off on Obama in a late evening Tweet:

But in 2020 it’s on you, buddy.

The biggest unanswered question

To us, at least, is why Trump, if he really had nothing to hide, attempted nearly a dozen times (according to the Mueller report) to hobble or kill the investigation. In other words, why did he make himself look so guilty?

We can only think of 2 reasons:

  • Uncertainty. Trump knows he’s been involved in a lot of shady things in his life, and he didn’t really know what Mueller would dig up (or maybe already had on him).
  • Blind retribution. Trump is compelled to mete out punishment against anybody who doesn’t unquestioningly line up behind him.

And that brings us straight to the biggest irony:

The Mueller team, who were attacked, and lambasted, and bullied by Trump on a more than daily basis, in the end leaned away from making any kind of recommendation against Trump, even though they were not able to exonerate him on obstruction charges. Which leaves an opening for Congress to pursue those charges, but not with any kind of non-partisan blessing.

Members of the Mueller team have to have been really pissed off at the President. Mueller’s frustration at not being granted a sit-down interview with Trump is made very clear in that section of the report, where he quotes from 12 of his own letters to Trump’s attorneys on the subject (some of them redacted.) Given that they seemed completely on the fence on obstruction, that alone might’ve been enough to tip them against Trump. Trump, for sure, would’ve toppled them over for a lot less (and according to their report, almost did). Yet they decided to be the professionals. (Another way of looking at it, as some people we respect are, on Twitter, is that they “dropped the ball” or even “wimped out”).

The Most Ludicrous Bit Of The Mueller Report

It’s Trump’s written answers to Mueller’s written questions.

Signature page of written answers to Special Counsel Mueller’s questions

The written Q&A between Mueller and Trump appears at the very end of the report, labeled “Appendix C”, starting at page #415. Here’s the link to the report again.

Mueller himself describes seeking “for more than a year to interview the President”, calling such an interview “vital”. Mueller quotes from his own letters to Trump’s attorneys, saying in one he’d offer “numerous accommodations to aid the President’s preparation and avoid surprise”. In fact, Mueller makes his frustration very clear by quoting from 12 separate letters of his own to Trump’s attorneys on the subject of an in-person interview (some of which have been redacted). Mueller further asserts there is no constitutional reason to forgo such an interview. Earlier in the report he’d stated: “The Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize the president“, which on the face of it seems to be at odds with Barr’s view.

Still, no go. Even though Trump at one time had told the New York Times of a sit-down with Mueller: “I’m looking forward to it, actually”.

Instead, he sent back written answers to written questions. Mueller admits Trump’s responses fall way short, writing to Trump’s lawyers that the information submitted:

“…demonstrate the inadequacy of the written format, as we have had no opportunity to ask follow-up questions that would ensure complete answers and potentially refresh your client’s recollection or clarify the extent or nature of his lack of recollection.”

The implication here is that Trump’s saying he doesn’t know anything, because he doesn’t know what Mueller knows, but Mueller isn’t going to be able to use whatever additional knowledge his team has to confront Trump, because Trump won’t allow it. So it’s a standoff.

But then — surprise! — Mueller decides to back off:

Recognizing that the President would not be interviewed voluntarily, we considered whether to issue a subpoena for his testimony. We viewed the written answers to be inadequate. But at that point, our investigation had made significant progress and had produced substantial evidence for our report. We thus weighed the costs of potentially lengthy constitutional litigation, with resulting delay in finishing our investigation, against the anticipated benefits for our investigation and report.”

So ultimately, largely by stonewalling, Trump and his lawyers made the right call. For him.

Without going into the content of the questions, which are pretty much what you’d expect, (and anyway you can look at them on your own, by clicking on this link and going to page #415), here are the first few words of Trump’s answers, in each case:

  • “I have no recollection…”
  • “I have no independent recollection…”
  • “I have no independent recollection…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “In remarks I delivered on the night I won [various primaries]…”
  • “I have no recollection…”
  • “I have no recollection…”
  • “I do not remember the date…”
  • “I recall that in the months leading up to the election there was considerable media reporting…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “I made the statement…in jest and sarcastically…”
  • “I was in Trump Tower…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “I spoke by telephone with Roger Stone from time to time…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “Sometime in 2015, Michael Cohen suggested to me…”
  • “I had a few conversations with Mr. Cohen…”
  • “I vaguely remember press inquiries and media reporting…”
  • “Mr. Manafort was hired primarily because of his delegate work…”
  • “I had no knowledge…”
  • “I do not recall…”
  • “I have no recollection…”
  • “My statement did not communicate any position.”
  • “I do not remember…”