Dear world: Attorney General William Barr did not say that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation found there was no collusion between Trump and Russia. Barr used weasel words to imply that but what he really said should make us all the more suspicious.
“The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’”
Attorney and former federal prosecutor Ken White also took note of that phrasing. He wrote in The Atlantic, "When prosecutors say that an investigation 'did not establish' something, that doesn’t mean that they concluded it didn’t happen, or even that they don’t believe it happened. It means that the investigation didn’t produce enough information to prove that it happened.”
It also jumped out at me that Barr, who would surely have known what he was doing, reiterated the murky "conclusion," then chose to present only part of Mueller’s quote on the subject.
In the same letter, Barr specifically said there had been no exoneration on the question of obstruction of justice. Yet he was deliberately vague in his suggestion that no conspiracy or coordination had been found. He reiterated this equivocal “did not find” language twice more in the letter.
Last night, Slate published a must-read article by correspondent Will Saletan that also noted Barr had used “weasel words” in his letter. But Saletan found many more of them - and more disturbing signs that Barr was equivocating in order to protect Trump. Rather than show Trump “innocent of collusion or obstruction,” Saletan concluded, Barr's letter "shows that collusion and obstruction were defined to exclude what [Trump] did.” (Emphases are mine.)
I’m going to focus on the “collusion” part because so many in the mainstream media, in addition to Fox, have incorrectly reported that Mueller found there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. From the Saletan article:
“The Russian government.” The letter quotes a sentence from Mueller’s report. In that sentence, Mueller says his investigation didn’t prove that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The sentence specifies Russia’s government. It says nothing about coordination with other Russians. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, gave campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian associate who has been linked to Russian intelligence. Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met secretly in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer. But neither Kilimnik nor Veselnitskaya is part of the Russian government. They seem to be excluded from Barr’s analysis.
“In its election interference activities.” This phrase is included in the same excerpt. It reflects the structure of the investigation. Mueller started with a counterintelligence probe of two specific Russian government operations: the production of online propaganda to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. These are the two operations Mueller targeted in his indictments of Russians last year. If Barr’s letter is accurate, Mueller seems to have decided to confine his examination of American complicity to those two operations. In fact, Barr’s letter specifically cites those operations as the contexts in which Mueller didn’t find conspiracy or coordination. Other contacts between Trump associates and Russians, such as Trump’s Moscow tower project and Michael Flynn’s secret talks about easing sanctions, have been set aside.
Saletan has a lot more to say about the ways Barr spun the “obstruction of justice” issues. So again, I wholeheartedly recommend the entire article.
Trump and Fox were ready to weaponize the Mueller report before the Barr letter was released. That viciousness has only just begun. We, on the other side, have a big fight on our hands that will undoubtedly spill into the 2020 campaign. Part of that fight will be to find out what Mueller really reported. For democracy’s sake, we can’t concede “no collusion” based on a suspicious snow job that didn’t even say none had occurred!
People absolutely must learn the lesson of 2016 if we are to avoid a repeat performance in 2020. It may actually help this cause that Fox News and angry Right Wingers are doing so much celebrating at the moment. They’re prematurely spiking their football and we’re still 20 months away from Election Day. This is the kind of thing that would only infuriate Democratic voters – something the Right normally doesn’t care about. But it’s exactly the kind of thing that should motivate those voters to show up in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Florida, to tell these guys where to go.