After a news conference by Attorney General William Barr, Congress and the public can access a redacted version of the Mueller report. Commentators will weigh in here throughout the day with smart takes on the report. The views expressed in this commentary are theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Julian Zelizer: Now it’s up to Congress to act
The Mueller report is shocking. Despite the attorney general’s efforts to provide exculpatory fodder for the President’s Twitter feed, Congress should be greatly concerned about the contents.
The first section does not find that there is a criminal case to be made against the President. It shows a large number of very deliberative points of contact with officials connected to the Russian government who were interfering in the election. Trump “asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails,” the report says, and that Michael Flynn “recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.”
Of course, we must also remember that Michael Cohen said in his testimony to Congress in February, Trump’s style is also to make clear what needs to be done rather than saying it directly: Campaign officials were seeking information that would help them.
The narrative in section one is a deeply troubling look at the nature of Trump’s campaign, generating questions about how this all might have shaped his policy decisions, and what the expectations are for conducting the 2020 election campaign. Incidentally, it shows there was more than enough reason for intelligence agencies to look into what was happening.
The second section is damning. It does not exonerate him from obstruction of justice – the charge at the heart of Presidents Nixon’s and Clinton’s impeachment processes. The Mueller team found multiple instances where Trump tried to stifle a legitimate investigation into his own conduct.
Very often the only thing that saved him were advisers who wouldn’t do what he wanted done. Combined with the public record – the President’s own words – there is also ample evidence about what was motivating him. Just because he failed to stop an investigation doesn’t mean he didn’t try to do so. In fact, it is clear he did.
Indeed, if this is a “good” report for the President, it is hard to imagine what a bad one would look like.
It turns out that much of the news we have been reading was accurate, not fake – about the Trump Tower project, about the contacts between campaign officials and individuals connected with Russia, and about the President’s efforts to fire Mueller. It seems that numerous investigations spun out of Mueller’s inquiry are very much in play.
It also turns out that the Department of Justice can’t be depended upon to handle this independently, as Attorney General William Bar demonstrated this morning with his decidedly biased interpretation of the report.
The obligation to make sense of this information falls on Congress. House Democrats will be under immense pressure now to make sense of what it all adds up to and to determine whether the President abused his power. There will be great political pressure on House Democrats to avoid doing so – after all, it is time to focus on the election – but it would be a mistake to allow the activities outlined in this report to be normalized and to see accountability fall by the wayside.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer.
Elie Honig: A staggering exercise in selective omission
With the redacted version of the Mueller report and the press conference he gave to help spin it, William Barr has cemented his status as a crafty partisan whose primary tricks are to cloak his political moves to shape public opinion and to protect President Trump under a thin sheen of law and process.
Imagine if, in Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 four-page “principal conclusions” letter, he had informed Congress and the public that special counsel Robert Mueller had found in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that it “established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
That is, in fact, a direct quote from Mueller. Yet Barr chopped off this crucial language and instead gave us only the back half of the very same sentence: “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr’s calculated, selective quotation of one sentence of Mueller’s gave the American people a slanted and inaccurate view of Mueller’s actual findings.
And imagine if, rather than unilaterally intercepting and dismissing the question of obstruction – without Mueller ever asking him to do so – Barr had let us know that Mueller actually referred the matter to Congress, finding that “[w]ith respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.” Again, had Barr given us even a reasonably faithful and impartial summary of Mueller’s work, the world would look much different for Trump than it does now.
Barr already proved himself decades ago as a master of manipulation through selective omission in 1989 when he omitted part of a Justice Department memo relevant to the abduction of then-Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega. He wrote before becoming Trump’s attorney general that there was more basis to investigate Hillary Clinton than “so-called ‘collusion’” and he sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to DOJ arguing that Mueller’s “obstruction theory is fatally misconceived.” Despite having pre-judged Mueller’s investigation in these stark terms, Barr declined to recuse himself. And then Barr issued a wildly misleading four-page summary – which he later claimed was not in fact a “summary” – which set the public discourse for nearly a month before today’s release of Mueller’s actual report.
Barr auditioned for his job by broadcasting his hostility to Mueller’s investigation and his loyalty to Trump. Now that he is the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Barr has shown himself to be as advertised. In his handling of Mueller’s report, Barr has done a disservice to the Department of Justice and the American people – but he has done a potentially administration-saving favor for Trump.
Elie Honig is a former federal and state prosecutor and CNN legal analyst.
Samantha Vinograd: Russia is reading — and learning from — the Mueller report, too
Today – and every day before and after it, actually – would have been a great day for an election security meeting at the White House. The Mueller report is a critical body of information that lays out how Russia attacked us. A responsible leader would use it to advocate against Russian attacks on our democracy and to warn against behavior that helps Russia’s goals, even if that behavior isn’t criminal. Instead, a report on Russia’s attack on our democracy in 2016, will, ironically, be used by some — including the President – to continue that very attack. It is a gift to the Russians.
The report will be used to create confusion, sow divisions, to amplify partisanship and to undermine the credibility of our democratic processes.
This is a proud moment for Putin. As the special counsel lays out, Russia’s attack on our democracy began at least as far back as mid-2014. It was systematic and strategic, and President Trump was a tool for the Russians at a specific time.
We know from various officials that Russia’s attack is ongoing, which raises the question of whether President Trump would criticize other 2020 candidates for acting the way he did during the 2016 election – including ignoring warnings about Russian interference (even if Trump’s activity was not criminal, his behavior is well below the bar of what we would expect of any presidential candidate). No one – including the President – can claim ignorance about what Russia is doing.
Russia weaponizes information against us already; controversial issues are Russian information warriors’ bread and butter. And we should expect them to use this report to further their objectives. And every time the President spreads misinformation about the report, uses it to divide and cast doubt on the investigation itself – he’s knowingly aiding and abetting that attack. It is a clear sign that he’s putting his own insecurities above the security of the American people.
The Mueller report could be and should be a guide for all candidates on what to watch out for in terms of foreign contact during 2020 campaigns, and how not to act during a campaign. Instead, because the President denigrates this now public body of evidence, he is failing to behave as a leader – one who should be working with campaigns to counter Russian or other foreign influence.
Now that the Mueller report is public, we have every reason to wonder whether Trump will repeat his actions during this next election cycle. And he certainly doesn’t appear to be taking measures to advise against dangerous behavior, like communicating with hostile foreign powers, failing to accurately report foreign meetings like the Trump Tower meeting, failing to disclose foreign offers to provide “dirt” on an opponent (even if it doesn’t pan out) and any foreign activities when it is perceived that it could help a campaign’s efforts.
Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd.
Ilya Shapiro: Don McGahn is the MVP of the Trump administration
One of the biggest heroes of the Mueller report is Don McGahn, who served as White House counsel from President Donald Trump’s inauguration through October 2018. McGahn sat for 30 hours of interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller. And, in the report, Mueller described him as a “credible witness with no motive to lie.”
The report reveals that soon after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed the special counsel, Trump tried to get McGahn to remove Mueller. McGahn repeatedly declined – and, in May 2017, he warned this action would appear as an attempt to “meddle in the investigation.”
When Trump called McGahn in June to prod him again to remove Mueller, the White House counsel was at his wits’ end. “McGahn did not carry out the direction,” details the report, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”
Later, when Trump asked McGahn why he had told Mueller about the order to have him fired, McGahn explained that “he had to” because their conversations weren’t protected by attorney-client privilege. This latter point is important because McGahn stood up for the idea that the White House counsel’s loyalty is to the Office of the President, not to the President himself.
Trump seemed satisfied by that explanation, but then asked, “What about those notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” McGahn replied that he is a “real lawyer” and that notes create a clear record.
In that judgment, McGahn was right – and more helpful to the President than Michael Cohen, his personal attorney and fixer, or any other of the non-notetaking lawyers who made a Trump-related appearance in the Mueller investigation.
In short, McGahn’s professionalism and commitment to legal ethics under challenging circumstances shine through in the Mueller report. When you add all that to his stunning success as architect of a winning strategy on judicial nominations — including two Supreme Court justices and a record number of circuit judges – McGahn comes out looking as the early nominee for MVP of the Trump administration.
Ilya Shapiro is director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute. Follow him on Twitter @ishapiro.
Errol Louis: It’s up to Democrats to pick up where Mueller left off
Among the most damning findings of the Mueller report are the multiple instances in which President Trump pressured staff to block or derail the investigation of the special counsel. He castigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation and even asked him to “unrecuse” himself. He asked White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller and instructed staff to confine the Russia investigation.
Former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, says the Mueller report rang a bell of familiarity. Trump’s efforts to end the investigation of Russian meddling, she told me, were similar to the kinds of tactics that led a congressional committee to approve articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.
“Some of it was kind of amazing. I mean, you see a lot of similarities to Watergate,” she said of the Mueller report.
Michael Waldman, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who runs the Brennan Center for Justice, agreed. “The mendacity comes through on every page,” he told me. “It’s basically an impeachment referral to the Congress.”
That is the most important outcome of the report – Trump tried to interfere with the investigation, in ways that the Watergate-era Congress found was an abuse of power that threatened the rule of law. The threat is no less real today, and congressional Democrats can expect a great deal of public pressure to pick up where Mueller left off, and hold Trump accountable for the extraordinary levels of deception, interference and abuse of power detailed in the Mueller report.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Jill Filipovic: Barr mansplains away Trump’s emotions
In a news conference so obsequious it would impress Kim Jong Un, Attorney General William Barr took great pains to flout the ethical requirements of his profession and instead behave as President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, spokesman and brand manager. There is, Barr said, “substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” When a reporter asked about the appearance that Barr was protecting the President, “including acknowledging [Trump’s] feelings and emotions,” Barr responded, “Actually, the statements about his sincere beliefs are recognized in the report.”
Men in an emotional tailspin have “sincere beliefs.” Women who simply speak from expertise and from the heart are shrill (or, in Trump’s take on Hillary Clinton, “She can be kind of sha-riiiiill”).
Wild-eyed photos of politically powerful women inevitably illustrate articles about them on right-wing websites (and sometimes even in the mainstream press). Trump is perhaps the most emotionally unbalanced national politician in living memory, tweeting semi-literate all-caps outbursts and frothing up his followers with incoherent tirades. There is great irony in the fact that this extraordinarily emotional president is cast as acting badly because of his “beliefs,” not his uncontrollable moods.
Anger isn’t just an emotion when women express it, and feelings don’t morph into beliefs just because it’s men who are expressing them. Nor, of course, is frustration a defense to the alleged commission of a crime.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and the author of the book, “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.”
Paul Callan: There’s no case for impeachment in Mueller report, but strong evidence Russians helped elect Trump
For the last two years the operation of the American government has been largely paralyzed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump. Regardless of the spin put on the detailed findings of Mueller’s probe by the political ideologues who dominate the public discussion of the Trump administration in Congress and in the media, there is insufficient evidence in the Mueller report to support the impeachment of the President based on Mueller’s findings.
Whether you love Trump or hate Trump, he has the right to finish his term. In the next election, though, the American people can render their true verdict as to his fitness to remain in office. When they render that verdict, they are likely to be reminded that the underlying facts of the Mueller Investigation released today suggest that even though there was no active criminal “collusion,” Russia may well have elected Trump.
The most worrisome aspect of Trump’s election has always been the specter of Russian collusion influencing the outcome of the extremely close 2016 presidential race. Mueller’s report states that there is insufficient evidence to establish presidential “collusion” (or what lawyers would call a criminal conspiracy) with the Russians.
While Mueller’s conclusions will be quoted in support of Mr. Trump’s “no collusion” mantras, the report reveals disturbing facts suggesting that the extremely close and controversial presidential election might have been thrown to Mr. Trump by Russian interference. Even if Trump and his campaign workers did not criminally conspire with the Russians, it remains quite possible that he is the President of the United States as a direct result of the active interference of Russian operatives in the election.
The report identifies the Internet Research Agency (“IRA”) based in St. Petersburg, Russia and funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin and companies he controlled, as the moving force behind Russian interference in the US presidential election. Mueller describes this effort as a “… targeted operation that by early 2016 favored Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton. The IRA’s operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States. To organize those rallies, IRA employees posed as U.S. grassroots entities and persons and made contact with Trump supporters and Trump Campaign officials in the United States.”
The report further describes “cyber intrusions (hacking) and releases of hacked materials damaging the to the Clinton Campaign. The Russian intelligence service known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU) carried out these operations.”
The movement of several thousand votes in a handful of large states would have shifted the election to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s election occurred in large part because he carried Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. His margin of victory in those states was 77,000 votes out of a total of 136 million votes cast in the election. A shift of a mere 37,501 votes would have elected Hillary Clinton president.
Simple common sense suggests that Russian operatives as outlined in the report could well have engaged in sufficient covert and overt operations to have easily moved such a miniscule percentage of the voting population to Trump. Though Mr. Mueller steers clear of analyzing the likely movement of actual votes in the election and the probable impact of Russian tampering though social media, rallies and fake news, historians of the future are unlikely to be so deferential.
Mueller’s report establishes that the fact of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf is crystal clear.
Though Mueller finds no evidence of criminal collusion by Mr Trump or his campaign, there is objectively little reason for White House celebrations. Democrats can now persuasively argue that the Russians elected Trump.
Though not a “Manchurian Candidate,” Donald Trump might more accurately be described as the “St. Petersburg Candidate.” While pundits will endlessly argue about whether the Mueller evidence supports obstruction of the justice charges against the President, the nation’s greater concern should be focused on Mueller’s focus on Russia’s obstruction of American democracy and how to block such interference in future elections.
Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and of counsel to the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan.
Alice Stewart: It’s time to move on
The 400-page Mueller report can be summed up in four simple words: Russiagate was no Watergate. After two years of investigating, Special Counsel Robert Mueller could not find that the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” in the 2016 election and did not recommend the Department of Justice to charge President Trump for obstructing justice.
It’s a painful pill for Trump critics to swallow, but ill-advised is not illegal, unsavory is not unlawful, and chaos is not a conspiracy.
There’s a big difference between something that doesn’t pass the smell test and something that doesn’t pass legal muster. In late March, I said on Don Lemon’s show that the Trump campaign could have done a lot of things differently. They could have handled the Trump Tower meeting better by issuing a statement saying, “Yes, it was ignorant and yes it was incompetent, but it was not criminal.”
Key findings of the special counsel’s report have gotten lost in the pearl-clutching, palace intrigue of the left. From the Internet Research Agency’s disinformation campaign to the hacks carried out by the military intelligence service GRU, the Mueller report includes details of Russia’s election interference that are beyond troubling.
Russian troll farms targeted me when I was the communications director for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Whenever I appeared in the press, various Russian-linked online groups attacked my social media. It’s chilling now to read Mueller’s findings on the efforts by Russia to impact our elections.
That being said, it’s satisfying that the special counsel found that Trump campaign members did not collude with the Russian government.
As expected, Mueller’s conclusion does not satisfy Democrats. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has vowed to continue the ongoing congressional investigations into the President. On Thursday, he said President Trump’s acts were “unpatriotic and should be condemned by every American.”
I’d suggest Democrats apply the same standard they used during the Clinton years. When Independent Counsel Robert Ray released his report in 2000, clearing President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing in the Whitewater probe, Hillary Clinton said most Americans had already made up their minds about it, “and now everybody can just move on.”
Fast-forward to today, I suggest everybody should just move on. Democrats need to stop endless congressional probes and threats of impeachment proceedings. Republicans need to drop “Spygate,” an unfounded claim that the Obama administration improperly spied on Trump’s campaign.
Instead, let’s all acknowledge that Russia may already be looking ahead to 2020. As they say: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Congress needs to take steps now to prevent future Russian interference in our elections.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
Shan Wu: Why there is nothing black and white about the decision not to prosecute Trump
As we read through the 400-page redacted version of the Mueller report, we should keep in mind the theme of prosecutorial discretion. Put another way: the decision to criminally prosecute is not as black and white as we might like to think. Particularly in a case as sensitive as the Mueller probe and where a decision to indict a sitting President would raise complex issues of Constitutional law, the discretion of the prosecutors becomes critical.
Attorney General Barr–sounding like many advocates for Trump, including Trump’s private lawyers—repeatedly makes Mueller’s decision not to charge the President with obstruction sound like a scientific conclusion based on legal formulas. This is simply not true. The facts revealed in Mueller’s report easily could have been charged as crimes.
Initial takes from the report suggest numerous deeply troubling actions by President Trump that a different prosecutor and a different Justice Department might have found warranted criminal charges. Here, however, Mueller appears to have been very cognizant of Justice Department policy that a sitting President should not be indicted, and specifically references the Constitutional issues and disturbance of the President’s ability to govern that a criminal case would cause.
He also recognizes the role of Congress. This is a valid and reasonable decision to have made. But it is not a decision compelled by facts or law. It is an exercise of discretion.
Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor who also served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. His Twitter handle is @ShanlonWu.
Joe Lockhart: The only thing missing from Barr’s performance was a MAGA hat
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Attorney General William Barr may both be Republican loyalists, but they approached releasing their investigative reports with completely different objectives. Starr released an unvarnished screed directed at President Bill Clinton – designed to drive him from office. Barr held a press briefing shortly before the report was actually released to make sure President Donald Trump can stay in office.
First, the law. Starr had largely unfettered power – with no White House or Department of Justice oversight. His report was released without any advance briefings for Clinton’s lawyers, and it left no sordid detail out. It was a document that almost begged House Republicans to impeach the President. In fact, Starr specifically and in writing denied Clinton’s lawyers’ access to the report in advance.
In the aftermath of Starr’s overreach, Congress changed the independent counsel law – requiring future special counsels to report directly to the attorney general, and thus paving the way for today’s farce.
In fact, the only thing missing from Barr’s performance was the Make America Great Again hat. He acted more as the President’s defense attorney than as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. To begin with, Barr said he let the President’s personal lawyers see the redacted report on multiple occasions, allowing Barr and the White House to coordinate on their basic legal talking points. And at his press briefing, he went one step further – defending Trump’s actions and saying he was motivated “by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”
But Barr didn’t stop there. While withholding the report from Congress, the media and the American public, he subjected us to a four-page summary of his own conclusions, including his personal sympathy for what the President has had to endure.
While Starr’s release delivered a political punch to Clinton, he stuck to the reporting of the facts, as he gathered them. Barr took a different approach – he cherry picked information from the report to report conclusions that the report itself does not appear to entirely support, such as the complex issue of obstruction (for which Mueller did not draw a conclusion).
Although Starr’s rollout was painful to go through, in and of itself, it was fair. Barr’s performance, by contrast, is an international embarrassment that will permanently stain our democracy.
So, where does that leave us? While Starr’s release hurt the President, it also answered all the outstanding questions about his investigation. Barr, on the other hand, may have helped Trump in the short term – but may have buried him down the road. After the Starr report was released, reporters had no further investigative questions, leaving only political ones. Barr, however, has created as many questions as the report answers.
Here’s one thing to watch: On the day Starr released his report, Clinton’s approval rating was at 63%. Shortly after, when the House voted on his impeachment, Clinton’s rating soared to 73%. It’s hard to see Trump’s ratings jumping significantly after Thursday’s release, given that questions will linger about how political Barr has become.
Just as the special counsel regulations yielded unintended consequences on Thursday, I think the political power play by Barr may just yield some unintended consequences of its own.
Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration, is a CNN political commentator. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.”
The control-F search you should do on the Mueller report
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is nearly 400 pages long. As a real-world reference point, the Modern Classics version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” runs 384 pages. Even if Attorney General William Barr makes so many color-coded redactions to Mueller’s report that it looks like a pack of Skittles exploded, do not expect a standard law enforcement investigative recap. We are about to get hit with a novel-length tome.
Strategies abound for how best to read the report. Here’s my suggested first move: use the “find” function. Hit control-F and plug in these five keywords to get a quick sense of how Mueller addresses the most pressing – and mysterious – issues raised during his investigation.
Read more here to see the five keywords Honig recommends.
Elie Honig is a former federal and state prosecutor and CNN legal analyst.