It Is Essential to Release the Complete Mueller Report

In the current political environment, the legitimacy of the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia and Moscow’s interference in elections rests on it being made public.

Expert comment Published 25 March 2019 Updated 3 October 2019 3 minute READ
Flag on Capitol Hill. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Flag on Capitol Hill. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which concludes his investigation into US President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia and Moscow’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 US presidential elections, has not yet been released. But there have already been strong reactions to Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of its major findings, published on Sunday afternoon, reactions fuelled by the partisan divisions that are driving politics in the United States today.

The fact that the attorney general was appointed by Trump has also intensified suspicions that his summary of the Mueller report is not wholly independent. This makes it even more important to release the fuller report into the public domain. Absent this, the credibility of what has been a rigorous, independent and very carefully controlled investigation by Robert Mueller is likely to be severely undermined.

Time is of the essence. In the current media environment, disinformation, fake ‘facts’ and echo chambers make it difficult to combat spin. The president’s tweet claiming ‘total exoneration’ is factually inaccurate, but it will be read as truth by many Trump supporters and stoke an unhealthy resentment towards Democrats among his base.

Trump’s rhetorical efforts to castigate the Mueller investigation as a ‘witch hunt’ designed by the Democrats to undermine the legitimacy of a democratically elected president is easier to sustain if the only information in the public domain are a few brief headlines.

This would be a shame with national consequences. The most important goal of the Mueller investigation has been to conduct an independent, fact-based, credible and rigorous investigation to establish the validity of allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections. Mueller was additionally tasked with determining whether Trump and those who worked for him helped the Russians to do this.

Whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice also became central to the investigation, especially but not only because of Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director, James Comey.

Mueller’s investigation has been kept highly confidential, but at the same time, the public has been intensely aware of it and waiting for its conclusions. Four pages published by a political appointee with long-standing and well-known views on executive privilege suggest that there is something to cover up. So it is good that the attorney general has expressed his commitment to transparency by releasing Mueller’s report, subject to legal restrictions.

Barr’s summary of the Mueller report had three major conclusions, all of which operated at a very general level. These are important, but if anything, they will intensify rather than mitigate demands to see the full report of Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation in which 500 witnesses were interviewed, 199 criminal charges were laid against 37 individuals and entities, 13 Russian nationals were charged with conspiracy to defraud the US and 12 Russian military officers were charged over hacking.

First, Barr has confirmed the most important question for the investigation, namely that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, both through a disinformation campaign conducted by the Internet Research Agency and a coordinated effort by Russia’s military intelligence to hack into the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party and to distribute these through Wikileaks. Many of these details were already in the public domain, but according to Barr, Mueller’s investigation has confirmed Russia’s interference.

This is highly significant and deeply problematic. It is even more problematic because Trump has refused to accept these allegations and has at times seemed to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence agencies. Trump’s intermittent and very potent attacks on allegations of Russia’s electoral interference made it even more important to establish the veracity of these allegations before the 2020 elections are underway.

Barr’s second summary finding based on his reading of the Mueller report has dominated the headlines. There will be no new indictments from Mueller’s investigations. Mueller did not find evidence to suggest that anything Trump did rose to the level that would justify a criminal charge of conspiring or coordinating with Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections.

The third summary in Barr’s four-page report says as much about Barr as it does about Mueller. This is regarding the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, either by firing FBI Director James Comey or through some other act. According to Barr, Mueller stated that on obstruction of justice, ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’.

Mueller’s investigation has been seen as independent and rigorous and his statement that he cannot make a determination on obstruction is likely to be viewed credibly, but also to generate a lot of curiosity and interest in understanding the facts that led to this decision. But Barr’s further determination (above and beyond Mueller’s conclusions) that he (together with his deputy) has determined that ‘the evidence is not sufficient to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense’ is problematic, especially in the absence of any access to the fuller report.

Barr’s judgement as to whether the evidence is sufficient to establish obstruction-of-justice charges will raise many questions about Barr’s own well-established views on executive privilege, despite the fact he claims this was not integral to his decision in this instance. It has also threatened to undermine the perception that Mueller’s report is sufficiently independent, since many will view Barr’s judgement as necessarily compromised since he is a political appointee and loyal to the president.

Official investigations of public wrongdoings are rarely uncontroversial. In countries that lack institutional capacity, where the military is unrestrained by civilian leadership or where democratic norms associated with the rule of law are weak, the reports of public inquiries often never see the light of day. There may even be places where the delayed release of the report is necessary to mitigate the prospect of a violent backlash.

The United States is not one of these places. Withholding the Mueller report from Congress and from the public would ultimately be self-defeating. Mueller has conducted an independent investigation that is at once conclusive and inclusive and it is now up to Congress and the public to consider his findings.