March 27, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Post-Mueller, Who Do You Trust?
There are a million ways of speaking factually while speaking untruthfully.
It’s been three days since Attorney General William Barr released on Sunday his four-page summary of “principal conclusions” from Robert Mueller’s report on the investigation into Russian sabotage of the 2016 election. It’s been a long three days.
Now’s a good time to offer a few thoughts, and I want to offer them in the spirit of humility and good faith, presuming that Barr, though he’s a partisan, isn’t distorting Mueller’s factual and legal findings. Bottom line: it’s going to come down to trust.
This is a summary. This is not the full report. Most conclusions based on a summary are conclusions built on sand. The White House is using Barr’s letter to hammer the Democrats and hammer Donald Trump’s critics. (The House minority leader is for reasons unclear calling for Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, to resign.) They’re welcome to it. Some pundits are playing along, specially those who staked their unearned reputations on claiming the Russia investigation was, if not a hoax, as the president has averred, then something hyped beyond recognition.
This is all to be expected. It doesn’t much matter. Over three days, thousands of words have gone into bolstering these reputations but every single pundit and every single operative may end up eating every single word depending on what’s in the full report. I’m not saying people like Eli Lake and Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald and Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway are wrong. They might be right, but they, and more importantly we, can’t know if they are right, because most, though not all, conclusions drawn from a letter as lean as Barr’s risk running into trouble once the report is released (whenever that is), and because they run that risk, they are weak at best.
The attorney general, though he serves the country first, nevertheless has great incentive to present Robert Mueller’s findings in the rosiest of lights. Most people get that.
This is not to say Barr is lying. As I said, I presume he is acting honestly and in good faith. I’m no fool, however. None of us is. We understand the attorney general, though he serves the country first, nevertheless has greet incentive to present Mueller’s findings in the rosiest of lights. Most people get that. They may not understand the shades of legal distinction between “collusion,” “coordination,” and “conspiracy,” and they may not understand what underpins a charge of obstruction of justice. But most people most of the time understand the moral difference between keeping things secret and exposing secrets to sunlight. Unless they’re paid partisans, most people think the administration should err on the side of transparency and public trust.
For this reason, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we forget about the president’s “vindication” over the last three days. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we forget we’ve entered supposedly a “post-Mueller” era. I suspect we’re going to forget that “impeachment is dead.” (Not that I’m for or against it, as Editorial Board readers know well.) The more time that goes by, I suspect, the more people are going to remember we haven’t yet seen the full report, and we’re going to remember because the Democrats have incentive to make sure we do. Their counter-message appears to be: What is the Trump administration hiding? Given that the public nearly always gives the benefit of the doubt to the party calling for transparency, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which keeping the Mueller report secret is good for the president.
The Trump administration might not be hiding anything, of course, which is all the more reason to release the full report so the people, but especially the Congress, can decide for themselves. As it is, the administration is saying in effect: Trust us. There was no collusion and there was no obstruction of justice. (By design, Mueller’s report did not come to a conclusion about obstruction of justice. Barr appears to believe that decision is his to make. That alone is the strongest argument in favor of releasing the report, because obstruction is not Barr’s decision. That’s up to the Congress.)
Are there sane and honest person out there willing to trust this administration over what could be the greatest political scandal in American history? Given that Trump has told thousands of documented lies, given that he pals around with dictators and strongman, given that he maligns patriots and undermines allies, given that he didn’t care about Puerto Rico’s dead, Russia’s sabotage, or a journalist literally bone-sawed to bits by order of a Saudi Crown prince, I don’t see grounds for trust. Ultimately, it may be too much to ask of voters to trust a president they already think is unfit.
It’s fair to say that Barr would not dare to misrepresent Mueller’s report. It’s also fair to say there are a million ways of speaking factually while speaking untruthfully. Again, I’m no fool. None of us is. Most people understand the difference between what’s legal and what’s right. As Adam Schiff said Tuesday: “There was a big difference between whether there was evidence of collusion—and I think that evidence is in plain sight—and whether you can establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a criminal conspiracy.” The Democrats are on the right side of the issue.
Since the “post-Mueller” era began three long days ago, three polls have come out to show public opinion virtually unchanged. A majority of Americans still disapprove of the president. A near majority think that he obstructed justice. Voters seem to have made up their minds, and everything Trump does reinforces that mindset. Keeping the Mueller report secret won’t change that. It will probably make things much worse.