When (now former) Special Counsel Robert Mueller broke his two-year silence last week and delivered an eight-minute statement about his report on Russian election interference, the Trump campaign’s relationship to it and the Trump administration’s response to the Russia investigation, what struck me the most wasn’t what he said, but the reaction to it.
It became crystal-clear that many people in the media and Congress, two vital American institutions, simply hadn’t read or fully digested the report, roughly 90 percent of which has been publicly available for over a month now. It reminded me of something one of the editors at the Savannah Morning News used to say when I worked there: R.T.F.P. — “Read the Paper.”
Mueller did not need to come out and make his remarks, which were nothing particularly new, but I think he wanted to get across a specific message: R.T.F.R. Because it’s obvious that so many people haven’t, and ultimately the confusion among the public about a document that’s been largely available for weeks is the result of failures of institutions to adequately and clearly communicate the report’s findings, a point that Quinta Jurecic, managing editor for Lawfare and writer for The Atlantic, drives home.
Jurecic writes, “The report, when it arrived, was a forbidding 448 pages and dense with legal terminology. It was not user-friendly. And so, perhaps predictably, a CNN poll from early May indicated that 75 percent of Americans have not read the report at all; 24 percent said they had read some of its contents, and only 3 percent said they had reviewed the entire document. The result is that most people, lacking the time to pore through almost 450 pages of text, were dependent on the press and on political figures to communicate the significance of the document. But the reaction to Mueller’s press conference suggests that those institutions have fallen down on the job.”
In his remarks, Mueller focused on three key points, which also appeared in the report itself.
First, there were multiple systematic efforts, sanctioned by the Russian government and intelligence services, to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and damage the Hillary Clinton campaign. The level of detail of these efforts that Mueller’s team gathered and documented in the report is astonishing, right down to travel itineraries, flight numbers and time-and-place key strokes of many of the perpetrators. Those tactics needed to be investigated and understood so we can safeguard against future interference. It’s an issue that every single American should take seriously if we ever want to have full confidence in our election results again.
Secondly, in discussing Volume II, which dealt with actions that could have obstructed the investigation, Mueller reiterated that if his team “had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” and that he could not even make a charging decision because he was bound by Justice Department policy that does not allow for the indictment of a sitting president. They could not even accuse Trump of a crime because “it would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of an actual charge.”
And third, as a result of that DOJ policy, “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
None of this was new information. It was all in the report.
And yet, we got these comments from Fox News anchor Bret Baier: “This was not — as the president says time and time again — no collusion, no obstruction. It was much more nuanced than that. He said specifically they couldn’t find evidence to move forward with the crime of collusion for the investigation of the Trump campaign. He said specifically if they had found that the president did not commit a crime on obstruction, they would have said that, and then went into specific details about the DOJ policy and why they couldn’t move forward with anything else than their decision.”
Bret is a very respectable newsman, but this was clear as day to anyone who actually took the time to “R.T.F.R.” But it goes beyond Fox News, as other networks and news outlets have been slow to fully absorb what Mueller actually wrote. Much of the reaction dealt with how Mueller’s comments thoroughly contradicted public remarks and sworn testimony by Attorney General William Barr, as if this was a new revelation. It should have already been understood how Barr blatantly misled the country with a four-page summary of a complex, 448-page document a month before it was released to hand the president a political narrative to run with. But the majority of the news media initially uncritically reported on that summary. NBC reporter Ken Dilanian infamously tweeted that it was “a total legal exoneration” of the president.
Others in media have failed to articulate the contents of Volume I of the report and just how narrow of a scope Mueller was operating under. Volume I details numerous contacts between Russians and Trump campaign officials and surrogates and the conclusion that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge a “broader conspiracy.” Pay careful attention to the language there used by Mueller in his comments last week.
The report lays out the difference between “collusion” and “conspiracy,” which have been falsely conflated over and over again, and he would have done well to mention a couple of key points in his comments. There was insufficient evidence to charge a hacking conspiracy but that does not mean “no evidence.” The report details the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept stolen materials and unethical behavior that would qualify “collusion” and it states that the destruction of evidence and use of encrypting messaging hampered the investigation.
A truly responsible media would continue to drill these points home and note there are 14 ongoing investigations, 12 of which are redacted in the report, that likely provide key context for other crimes and smaller conspiracies beyond hacking. Instead, we get an exhaustive recounting of Donald Trump’s battle against the ghost of John McCain and what he said about a member of the British Royal Family.
But beyond the media, there’s the inaction of a Congress that has been painfully slow to read the report, particularly Volume II, as an impeachment referral.
Roughly 50 members, about a tenth of Congress, have come out in favor of launching impeachment proceedings. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the sole congressional Republican at this point to publicly support impeachment, has spoken with more conviction than just about any of them. Amash is a classic Libertarian-conservative who took the time to read the report and can recognize that the Trump actions detailed in Volume II are those of someone the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution had in mind to guard against, someone who views himself as a king and above the law.
But the Democratic leadership mostly consists of people who are either spineless or fueled by misguided political calculations. When the attorney general and members of the Trump circle thumb their noses at subpoenas, the Democratic leadership huffs and puffs and writes angry letters. But they don’t actually do anything about it, which gives the president’s cronies more rope to openly defy the law.
Some believe it’s more important to effectively let Trump slide and try to beat him on “the issues.” They’re perpetually stuck in the world of 1992, where both sides could debate economic and healthcare policy and the one with the best message would win.
They are shirking their oaths to protect the Constitution because they’re worried that impeaching Trump for his conduct will rile and fortify Trump’s base and garner sympathy for him outside of the base. And in the process, they’ve become blind to the message they’re sending their own base and those of us who are fed up with the conduct of a lawless administration — that it ultimately doesn’t matter if the rule of law is bucked.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi falsely presents it as an issue of bringing a case that at least 20 Senate Republicans will support to convict Trump, but what is the incentive for any Republican to listen if Pelosi and her caucus can’t be moved to quit sitting on their hands? The Senate is very likely not ever going to convict him, but shouldn’t it be about doing the right thing?
The House Judiciary Committee will begin a series of hearings on the Mueller report next week. That’s an encouraging sign.
But if Democrats continue to kick this can down the road, I would advise them to prepare to be extremely disappointed next November. Maybe they’ll eventually grow some guts to uphold the rule of law, if it is still salvageable after Trump has spent four more years trampling over it.
Scott Thompson is editor of the Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.