One week after special counsel Robert Mueller handed in his work to the U.S. attorney general, it still seems impossible for the Justice Department to give a straight answer to the most elementary question: How many pages is it?
The thickness detail is touchy, because the report is apparently a tome — more than 300 pages, sources told the New York Times — and the possibility that the weight of it might also imply the gravity of it could lead to suspicions about the puny four-page recapitulation whipped up by Attorney General William Barr on the weekend.
Even Fox News caught that. As their house legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano told viewers Wednesday, a fat report likely means “there is something in there that the Democrats and opponents of the president want to see,” and if they see it, “they’ll make hay out of it.”
Nevertheless, the wind that U.S. President Donald Trump felt behind him earlier in the week — when he falsely claimed that the Mueller report contains no evidence of him colluding with Russia or obstructing justice — is shifting, as the realization sinks in that the Mueller report likely has evidence of both, even if not enough to meet the threshold for a criminal prosecution.
For example, tucked away in Barr’s letter — and, so far, drawing not nearly enough attention, frankly — is a hint of the untold stories that are in the full report just waiting to explode: The Trump campaign received “multiple offers” of help from “Russian-affiliated individuals,” it says. Multiple offers.
However many offers “multiple offers” is, it’s certainly more than we knew. What kind of help was it? Were all the offers rebuffed, or did they just not pan out? Who knew about them? How were the offers made? Was the Kremlin involved? Did Trump know about them and conceal them? And if he did, did the Russians use that knowledge as kompromat against him? How? Would U.S. intelligence have benefited from knowing about all of this at the time? Did they?
As Trump’s TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani has often said, collusion is not a crime. So it will be up to Americans to decide whether a presidential campaign that received multiple offers of help from foreign actors scheming to undermine the U.S. election was colluding with the perpetrators when it kept that a secret — if that’s what Mueller tells us happened.
The meaning of ‘most’
Then there’s the obstruction case. Barr’s letter says Mueller investigated actions by the president that might constitute obstruction — “most of which have been the subject of public reporting.”
Barr enlists the word “most” as a double agent. It coyly suggests that the actions Mueller examined are old news, while really what it says is the opposite. The Mueller report details actions by Trump that Mueller considered could be construed as obstruction — actions we still don’t know about.
When you consider everything we do know about the Trump/Russia story — the consistent pattern of lies from so many in Trump’s circle, Trump’s own lies about his Moscow development project, campaign manager Paul Manafort’s lies and ties to oligarchs and his sharing of campaign intelligence with a Kremlin-connected Russian, the Trump Tower meeting arranged explicitly as part of Russia’s help for the Trump campaign, the indictments, the plea deals, etc. — it’s hard not to marvel at how brazenly disingenuous the Barr letter’s summary of the whole thing is.
But as a public relations tactic, it was brilliant. It changed the entire conversation for at least a news cycle or two, as the president took a victory lap and the mainstream punditocracy grovelled to give Trump what it considered his due. Republicans openly plotted their revenge, and promised to investigate Democrats and the deep state to find out how the whole mess got started.
It did not go unnoticed, though, that it was Trump and the Republicans who chose to suddenly change the subject when they turned their attention to trying, again, to destroy Obamacare. Perhaps they didn’t want any deeper reflections in the media on Barr’s Mueller letter.
When the history of all this is written, the Barr chapter will begin with how shrewdly he manoeuvred his way to the centre of the action. In June 2018, from the comfort of his private practice and apparently on his own initiative, he wrote a 19-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Barr had been attorney general in the presidency of George H.W. Bush, so he knew how to access the system.
The memo argued that the president could not obstruct justice in the way that Barr assumed Mueller was approaching the obstruction question. It further argued that Trump should not agree to an interrogation by Mueller.
The memo found its way into the hands of Trump’s legal team at a time when the president was already fed up with his then attorney general, Jeff Sessions. One assumes they were impressed by what they read.
The critical moment
We know what happened soon after: Sessions was out, Barr was in, and the Mueller investigation wound down. The critical moment came when Mueller decided he would not make a determination that Trump obstructed justice, even though there was evidence on both sides of that question.
It’s hard not to see how this was the moment Barr had prepared himself for when he wrote his memo. He stepped in and took Trump out of the danger zone.
But who would have guessed that he would cap it all with such a cleverly crafted and brilliantly timed letter that minimized the whole drama? It’s spin, transparently spin, but top-notch nonetheless.
This story originally appeared on CBC