Philip Bump: Barr’s letter about Mueller probe elicits more questions than it answers
A copy of a letter from Attorney General William Barr advising Congress of the principal conclusions reached by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is shown Sunday, March 24, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress summarizing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s work
was pointed in trying to answer the big-picture questions that have surrounded Mueller’s well-protected investigation.
Did President Donald Trump or his 2016 campaign coordinate/collude/conspire with Russians seeking to influence the election? "The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities," Mueller wrote, according to Barr's letter.
Did Trump obstruct the investigation into Russian interference? Mueller's team determined that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, therefore, "concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense."
Beyond those conclusions, there’s not a lot new in what Barr presented. There were some details about the scale of the investigation -- 2,800 subpoenas, 500 witnesses -- and re-emphasis on what Russia actually did, like hacking the Democratic Party and attempting to influence voters over social media. Barr’s letter concludes by stating that he will push to release as much of Mueller’s report as possible, once it has been scrubbed for material that might run afoul of rules barring release of certain material from the grand jury process.
In other words, Barr’s letter was not meant to be exhaustive, and it isn’t. And, as such, it leaves several central questions unanswered -- some of which may remain unanswered indefinitely. It’s the nature of conspiracy theorizing, in fact, that even the release of Mueller’s full report would necessarily leave tiny cracks that those unwilling to be persuaded on the subject could try to pry open.
That said, it's worth considering what we still don't know.
How specific is Barr's language? Barr's letter clearly attempts to share as-definitive-as-possible answers to the questions about coordination and obstruction, but in doing so leaves out nuance about those subjects.
Along the lines of our tiny-cracks analogy above, those looking for gaps in Barr's language can find them. Roger Stone wasn't part of Trump's campaign past the summer of 2015, for example. Is he included in the otherwise airtight dismissal of charges of coordination? WikiLeaks wasn't part of the Russian interference effort. Was there any demonstrated exchange between the campaign and that organization?
In what sense does Mueller consider other known interactions between Trump's team and Russian actors? Most were obviously unremarkable, but we don't know from this letter alone why some of the more evocative interactions were ultimately determined to be insufficient for showing coordination, just that they were.
For example: Barr establishes the Russian interference effort as two-pronged - hacking and social media. The June 2016 Trump Tower meeting as we currently understand it doesn't appear to have necessarily included aspects of either of those efforts; was that why it was excluded? We don't yet know.
What did Mueller say about obstruction of justice? Once Barr's letter was released, it took very little time for observers to note that Barr and Rosenstein were making the evaluation on obstruction, not Mueller. The letter explains that decision by considering, in part, what it would take to convict someone of obstruction of justice - noting specifically that this consideration wasn't influenced by Justice Department guidelines prohibiting the indictment of a president.
"In cataloguing the President's actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent," Barr writes, "each of which, under the Department's principles of federal prosecution guiding charging decisions, would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense."
But Mueller explicitly didn't exonerate Trump. Why not?
And when Barr writes that “most” of the actions taken by Trump that raise questions about obstruction “have been the subject of public reporting” -- what actions haven’t been?
Who was targeted and why? The scale of the investigation is impressive. Five-hundred witnesses: Who? Fifty warrants allowing investigators to capture call records: Targeting whom? Why? Thirteen requests for information from foreign governments: Which? Why?
What happened to the various threads of the investigation that were left unanswered? There are still a number of questions that remain unanswered from the voluminous documentation that Mueller's team already made public - questions that Barr's letter obviously leaves unanswered.
Why, for example, wasn’t conservative author Jerome Corsi charged by Mueller’s team after being offered a plea agreement? We know from Barr’s Friday letter to Congress that this wasn’t because the Justice Department intervened -- so what changed?
What happened when former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort gave poll data to Konstantin Kilimnik, who was believed to have links to Russian intelligence, an issue that in February a Mueller attorney described as getting at the heart of the Mueller probe? Was he, after all, just freelancing?
Or, going deeper: Who were the Trump campaign staffers who were contacted by Russians working for the Internet Research Agency? Who was the Florida congressional candidate who sought and received hacked information about his or her opponent? Who was the senior Trump campaign official who asked Stone to reach out to WikiLeaks after the initial document releases in July 2016 - and who told him to make that outreach?
Why did so many people lie about their interactions? As Americans have waited for Mueller to complete his work, there’s been a consistent question that some have argued implied some level of guilt: Why did so many people lie about what happened? A campaign adviser, Trump’s personal attorney, his national security adviser, his former campaign manager, his former deputy campaign manager -- all admitted to misleading investigators.
Why? Different reasons for each? A common interest (as at least two suggested) in buffering Trump?
Of all of the outstanding questions that exist, this may be the one that we’re least likely to get answered.
Philip Bump | The Washington Post
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.