the national interest

Here Are All the Unsolved Questions the Mueller Report Can Answer

Robert Mueller. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

House Democrats are demanding to see the full Mueller report, rather than William Barr’s summary of it. Republicans have previously signaled support for disclosing it, but yesterday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a nonbinding resolution calling for the report to be made public, a move that may well signal the true Republican position. If House Democrats subpoena the report, the matter will likely wind up in court, taking months to resolve.

The likely Republican move from here on out will be to continue touting Barr’s summary of the report as the final word while quietly blocking a release of the full report. What questions would the report answer? There are four major categories.

1. How straight did Barr play it?

The attorney general is one of the more mysterious figures in this story. On the one hand, he has experience in traditional Republican politics and a long friendship with Robert Mueller. On the other, his experience in Republican politics involves covering up a major presidential scandal, and he got his current role by writing a private memo attacking Mueller’s obstruction investigation.

New evidence for the latter view might be the Justice Department’s decision, announced last night, to join a right-wing lawsuit to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. The case made in the lawsuit is so wild, even conservative lawyers who have devoted years to destroying Obamacare in court consider it crazy. “I was among those who cheered the selection of William Barr as Attorney General and hoped his confirmation would herald the elevation of law over politics within the Justice Department,” writes Jonathan Adler, a conservative law professor who has tried to overturn Obamacare. “I am still hopeful, but this latest filing is not a good sign.”

Seeing the full report would obviously go a long way toward resolving the question. In the meantime, the carefully parsed language in Barr’s summary leaves plenty of room to question the underlying text.

2. What other obstruction of justice evidence is there?

Barr’s letter states that “most” of the conduct by Trump that raised obstruction of justice concerns has “been the subject of public reporting.” There is a lot of it — from pressuring James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn to dangling pardons for the key lieutenants who might have been able to testify against him. There is enough evidence in the public record, indeed, to make a strong case for impeaching Trump on that basis alone. (Obstruction of justice was, of course, the basis for impeaching President Nixon.)

But “most” does not mean “all.” It could mean “basically everything,” or it could mean “more than half.” Other steps Trump may have taken to obstruct justice would be of high interest to Congress. One mystery: Did Mueller find additional evidence that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s efforts to get a building deal in Moscow during the campaign? BuzzFeed reported that he did, though the special counsel disputed the report. Cohen testified to Congress that Trump directed him to lie by repeating a false story before his testimony (the equivalent to saying “I was never here,” or “We never had this conversation.”). Did Mueller reach any conclusions?

Neal Katyal has argued that Mueller seemed to intend to leave the obstruction question for Congress to decide, as a political judgment. Instead, Barr imposed his own judgment. Only reading Mueller’s own findings, and hearing his testimony, will answer this.

3. How much noncriminal collusion took place?

Barr states that Mueller “did not establish” that Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia. There’s no reason whatsoever to question that finding. And while that is an extremely important finding, it only answers one of the questions that propelled the investigation in the first place.

The key concept here is one of the few principles agreed to beforehand: Collusion is not a crime. It follows from this that the lack of a crime does not mean a lack of collusion. But Mueller was appointed to find out not only what Russia did to interfere in the election, but also “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Before the report, I summarized the broad evidence of illicit contacts and corruption linking the Trump campaign with Russia. Rosalind Helderman and Natasha Bertrand have written excellent rundowns of many of the dangling threads that have been left from previous findings.

The most important two are the Trump advisers who had the most direct contact with Russia during the campaign: Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. A court filing last month by Mueller charged that a Russian hacker “interacted directly with Stone concerning other stolen materials posted separately online.” The indictment of Stone states that in July, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information.” It also states that, shortly after WikiLeaks released emails on October 7, 2016 — shortly after a tape of Trump boasting about sexual assault had grabbed headlines — “an associate of the high-ranking Trump Campaign official sent a text message to STONE that read ‘well done.’”

Who directed the senior official to contact Stone? (It could have been Trump himself.) To what extent was the Trump campaign coordinating with WikiLeaks to exploit the stolen emails?

Likewise, Manafort passed 75 pages of detailed polling information to a Russian agent. The matter went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told the court at the time.

Both Stone and Manafort withheld cooperation from Mueller, almost certainly banking on Trump delivering pardons. And Mueller clearly did not have enough evidence to prosecute Trump for any of their behavior. But that leaves a lot of room to establish what forms of noncriminal cooperation they were engaged in.

4. How much corruption took place?

Money was one of the key links between Trump and Russia. Corruption can be difficult to prove in court, but it’s also perhaps the most important political question in the whole Russia scandal. To what extent did Trump have hidden financial interests that influenced his disposition toward Russia?

One of Russia’s key political objectives in its support of Trump appears to have been lifting or softening sanctions that were imposed as a consequence of its invasion of Ukraine. That goal floats through several of the reported contacts — from the Trump Tower meeting to discuss adoptions (the Russian ban on American adoptions was in retaliation for the sanctions, and the two are essentially indistinguishable); to the August 2016 meeting between Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, which discussed sanctions; to Cohen’s delivery to Michael Flynn of a Russia-friendly “peace plan” for Ukraine in early 2017.

Cohen testified that Trump was expecting a payday of several hundred-million dollars from the Moscow project. If true, this would not necessarily constitute a crime, but it is absolutely an open-and-shut case of corruption. Trump could not possibly formulate his Russia policy stance in good faith if he stood to gain such a gigantic windfall by staying in Vladimir Putin’s good graces.

Trump has reportedly come to rely heavily on Russian financing in recent years. Mueller has reportedly seen Trump’s tax returns, and Congress is also working to obtain them. Russia as a matter of practice spreads money around to its partners as a way of cultivating overseas influence. Has Mueller produced any additional evidence of financial links that could compromise Trump?

Corruption, like collusion, is not a crime. It can involve specific crimes that are difficult to prove in court (like bribery, which needs to demonstrate a quid pro quo.) But Congress obviously has a very strong interest in determining the level of corruption infecting Trump’s relationship with Russia.

Ken Dilanian reports that the FBI is preparing a counterintelligence briefing to the Gang of Eight, the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in the next 30 to 60 days. That briefing apparently would address the real heart of the matter: Russian influence over Trump.

Here Are All the Mysteries the Mueller Report Can Answer