Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press) via The Los Angeles Times
For nearly two years, the nation has been bitterly divided by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing investigation into the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath. To President Trump, the Mueller investigation has been the “single greatest witch hunt in American political history” — a “disgrace” and “scandal” that is nothing short of “corrupt,” “illegal” and “rigged.” To Trump’s opponents, on the other hand, it has been merely justice at work, a necessary effort to determine whether an unfit and undeserving candidate (or those who reported to him) colluded with another country to seize control of the most powerful job in the world.
Now, finally, the work is done, the report is filed, and the U.S. attorney general has in his hands the most comprehensive study yet of the connections among Russia, the election and the Trump campaign. But this must not be the end of the story.
It is vital that Congress and the public see the full report. The nation deserves to learn what Mueller has concluded not only about possible cooperation by the Trump campaign with Russia, but also about possible obstruction of justice by the president. That’s crucial whether or not Mueller has decided that Trump violated the law or committed actions that require further action by Congress. The report must not be buried.
Of course, we already know much of what Mueller’s team believes happened and, assuming it is true, it tells a shocking story about the fragility of the American election system and the willingness of malign outside forces to subvert our democracy. Mueller’s team has already asserted in court documents that there was an intricate, sophisticated Russian effort to meddle in the 2016 election through deception and disinformation — including the dissemination of fake news and the hacking of emails — to help Trump win. Though “collusion” has not been proved in any of the documents that have as yet become public, the indictments filed so far point to dozens of contacts between the Trump campaign and various Russians and their associates, many of whom had connections to the government.
For example, campaign advisor George Papadopoulos sought repeatedly to arrange a Trump-Putin meeting. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen struggled to broker a Trump Tower deal in Moscow while the campaign was underway. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort had repeated contacts during the campaign with a Russian associate with ties to that country’s intelligence services. Donald Trump Jr. held a meeting at which he was promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. And the list goes on.
But what does it add up to? What does it mean? Is it collusion or isn’t it? Was justice obstructed after the fact? Was Trump in the loop or out of it? This is what Mueller still has to tell us. And even if he has concluded that no further crimes were committed than the ones he’s already charged, the details need to be revealed so Congress and the country can figure out what needs to happen next.
For example, suppose that Mueller has concluded that Trump didn’t violate laws against obstruction of justice by dismissing former FBI Director James B. Comey or by expressing the hope that Comey could go easy on former national security advisor Michael Flynn (an accusation by Comey that the White House has denied). Considering the same evidence that Mueller adduced, Congress might come to a different conclusion, or decide to use Mueller’s report as a resource in its own investigations. Or voters might conclude, on the basis of that evidence, that they cannot vote for President Trump again in 2020.
This week, Trump insisted that he would like the report to be released. But the final decision rests with U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr, who was less than completely reassuring during his Senate confirmation hearings when he was asked whether he would do so. Barr noted that the regulations governing Mueller’s appointment provided for the special counsel to send the attorney general a confidential report.
But Barr also acknowledged that, under the same regulations, the attorney general makes a follow-up report to Congress that could be made public. Barr promised senators to “provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.” He repeated that promise in the letter he sent to congressional leaders Friday reporting that Mueller had concluded his investigation. Barr said he would consult with Mueller and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein about what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public.
The longer the report remains under wraps, the more that Trump and his allies will be able to advance whatever narrative they please about it. Lately, the spin has been that Mueller somehow vindicated Trump because he has not brought charges against the president or alleged explicitly that the campaign worked with Russian agents. That’s ridiculous.
And it’s all the more reason Barr must err on the side of transparency, resisting any efforts by the White House to cloak some contents of Mueller’s report by invoking national security. Because Mueller’s investigation was at least in part a counterintelligence probe, it’s possible that some information in his report could compromise sources and methods and should legitimately be withheld. But redactions should be minimal and based on recommendations from professionals in the intelligence community, not on political considerations.
For almost two years, the nation has waited for Mueller to finish his work, while worrying with good reason that Trump might move to dismiss the special counsel or abort or drastically rein in his investigation. While the prosecutors have worked quietly, Trump has repeatedly attacked the Russia investigation — hundreds of times, in speeches, on Twitter and elsewhere. No doubt some who are insisting that Mueller’s conclusions be made public have already made up their minds about Trump’s culpability. But you don’t have to prejudge Mueller’s conclusions to recognize the importance of sharing them with the public. Barr must move quickly to do that.