Seven-hundred-and-two days after US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel, the Justice Department on Thursday morning will publish a redacted version of Mueller’s report on the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller’s report is one of the most highly anticipated documents in American history. Political journalists are treating Thursday morning like it’s election night. The Justice Department has taken precautions to prevent its website from crashing. Publishers plan to rush copies of the report to print, and NBC’s Seth Meyers has announced an extended 90-minute version of his comedy show just to make jokes about it.
Clocking in at around 400 pages, the Mueller report spells out the findings of an investigation that led to the indictment of six Trump associates as well as dozens of Russian operatives who hacked Democrats’ emails and boosted candidate Donald Trump on social media. It also examines allegations that President Trump obstructed justice by interfering with the investigation.
Attorney General William Barr, working in counsel with Mueller, will release a redacted version of the report that leaves out grand jury material, intelligence information that might reveal sources and methods, information that may affect ongoing investigations and information that would “infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
In a four-page letter to Congress on March 24, Barr said that Mueller “did not find” that any Americans conspired with the Russian government to influence the election. But the report likely further details Russia’s extensive efforts to boost Trump and hurt Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s campaign, answers questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian government officials and supposed agents, and lays out Mueller’s evidence on obstruction of justice.
The Mueller investigation’s main focus was to determine whether Trump’s campaign illegally coordinated or conspired with Russian government actors to improperly influence the 2016 election. From what we know, Mueller chose not to bring criminal charges against Trump or members of his campaign for engaging in a conspiracy with the Russian government.
Barr wrote in his letter reviewing the report that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” That’s why Trump and many of his allies have been arguing that the report exonerates him.
But we do know of contacts between Trump campaign officials and alleged agents of the Russian government. The report should answer why some of these officials were prosecuted on charges related to these contacts ― mostly for lying to investigators ― and why others were not. It may also reveal previously undisclosed contacts made by Trump campaign officials and hangers-on with anyone connected to the Russian operation.
Thanks to Mueller’s charging documents, we already know a good deal about contacts between the Trump campaign and individuals presumed to be connected to Russian election interference efforts.
This whole ordeal began after Trump aide George Papadopolous divulged to Australia’s top diplomat to the U.K. that he had been told that Russians had obtained “dirt” on Clinton. The diplomat alerted U.S. authorities and the FBI responded with a counterintelligence investigation that would lead to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Papadopoulos lied to investigators when confronted about how he heard that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton and ultimately pleaded guilty to making false statements.
Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn also pleaded guilty to lying about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, pleaded guilty and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was successfully prosecuted for their unregistered lobbying work for former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovich, among other things. The prosecution of Gates and Manafort revealed that Manafort had provided 75 pages of Trump campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political operative alleged by Mueller to be a Russian military intelligence operative. Roger Stone, an outside adviser to Trump, is currently awaiting trial on charges of making false statements, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Any section of the Mueller report on Stone’s prosecution will likely be redacted because the prosecution is ongoing.
Mueller’s report could provide answers about why he decided to charge Papadopoulos and Flynn for making false statements, why Flynn got such a sweet plea deal and proposed sentence, what Gates provided as part of his plea deal, what happened with Manafort’s aborted plea deal and why Mueller believes Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence operative. Of course, much of this information could also end up being redacted if it pertains to U.S. intelligence operations.
And then there are the non-prosecutions from the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016. Presidential son Donald Trump Jr., presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and Manafort sat down with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in Manhattan for a meeting that Trump Jr. was told in emails would provide “dirt on Clinton” as part of the “Russian effort to aid” the Trump campaign.
As far as the public knows, Veselnitskaya didn’t provide any real dirt on Clinton and Trump Jr. left the meeting disappointed. But speculation persists about what happened behind closed doors, whether Trump Jr. spoke with his father about the meeting and if his pursuit of “dirt on Clinton” constituted an improper solicitation for a thing of value from a foreign national ― a potential campaign finance crime.
The report could help explain what other facts were uncovered during the investigation into the Trump Tower meeting and why Mueller chose not to prosecute anyone involved in it. Or perhaps the section is redacted to protect the reputation of peripheral characters ― including the president’s oldest son.
What is likely to be the most consequential part of the report focuses on allegations that Trump obstructed justice by trying to undermine and end the investigation into his campaign. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton faced impeachment inquiries based on the charge that they obstructed justice. Barr wrote in his letter that while the Mueller report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
There are several areas to watch for potential obstruction of justice. One is the May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey, who detailed in internal memos Trump’s efforts to persuade him to end the investigation into Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to one Comey memo. When Comey wouldn’t end the investigation as Trump urged him, he was fired, prompting the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Another notable moment is when Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November 2018 after more than a year of relentlessly attacking Sessions for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation.
Did any of these acts obstruct the investigation? The report should provide some evidence either way.
Trump also repeatedly floated the idea of pardoning Manafort, who was charged with numerous counts of financial fraud, making false statements and lobbying violations. The report could indicate whether Mueller thought that the president undermined his investigation by giving Manafort an incentive not to cooperate. One of the pending articles of impeachment against Nixon related to his abuse of the pardon power by agreeing to pardon one of the Watergate burglars.
There is also the question of how Trump crafted his son Donald Jr.’s false answer to The New York Times about how the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting came about and whether the falsehood constituted an act meant to obstruct the investigation.
Barr’s letter said that “most” of the actions addressed in Mueller’s report “have been the subject of public reporting.” One big question then is what other potential obstruction Mueller may have uncovered.
Barr has already cast doubt on potential arguments that Trump obstructed justice in his letter summarizing the Mueller report. The attorney general argued that “the government would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person, acting with corrupt intent, engaged in obstructive conduct with a sufficient nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding.”
This follows the argument that Barr laid out in an unsolicited 2018 memo to the White House in which he made a legal case against obstruction charges.
It’s unlikely that any of the indicted Russians will ever set foot on U.S. soil, so their indictments haven’t received much ongoing media coverage. But the conspiracy they lay out is extraordinary.
One indictment against 12 Russians says that Russia’s military intelligence agency hacked the Clinton campaign as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee and then published the stolen emails online using aliases. Mueller’s team alleged that the Russians “targeted over 300” Democrats and successfully spear-phished Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. They stole email credentials and thousands of emails from a number of Clinton campaign officials. They installed malware on at least 10 DCCC computers, which “allowed them to monitor individual employees’ computer activity, steal passwords, and maintain access to the DCCC network.” They hacked into the DNC network with stolen credentials, gaining access to “approximately thirty-three DNC computers.”
Even the redacted Mueller report is expected to include significant information about the Kremlin-linked campaign that used social media platforms to influence the 2016 election, something that was a major target of the special counsel’s investigation and resulted in numerous criminal charges against those Russian operatives.
The special counsel’s office last year indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges related to election interference. Prosecutors alleged that operatives working with the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency created Facebook groups and Twitter accounts to push out disinformation about the U.S. presidential candidates and the election, sometimes even helping to set up political rallies in the real world. The Internet Research Agency also purchased around $100,000 worth of Facebook ads and published tens of thousands of posts aimed at sowing discord or aiding Trump.
We already know a lot about that disinformation campaign from the 2018 indictment, but the redacted Mueller report is likely to give a more complete picture of Russia’s interference as well as possibly elaborate on the motives behind it. The indictment of the Internet Research Agency previously indicated that the operatives had a clear goal of supporting the candidacies of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and negatively targeting Clinton’s campaign.
What Will Democrats Do Next?
House Democrats want the full, unredacted Mueller report. They will not be satisfied with Barr’s redacted version released on Thursday. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will almost certainly call for Barr to hand over the original version with no redactions. It will help Nadler’s argument if the report is heavily redacted.
But it still may be hard for Nadler to get the full report. The special counsel rules give the attorney general broad leeway on whether the results of an investigation are disclosed to Congress or the public. Courts may take the attorney general’s side in a subpoena fight.
There is one way that Democrats would almost certainly win the legal argument to obtain the full report: launch impeachment proceedings.