Though President Trump and his Republican allies are insisting that the report written by Robert S. Mueller III exonerates him, none of them have actually seen it; all we have to go on at the moment is Attorney General William P. Barr’s four-page memo, which appears to have been written to put Trump in the best possible light. Nevertheless, it seems that the entire Russia investigation will not be wrapped up in a tidy, easy-to-understand package.
Given what we saw in 2016 and what we’ve learned since, this was predictable. For a long time now, I’ve insisted that if anyone was expecting Mueller to uncover the kind of clear, coherent, well-planned conspiracy that the movies have taught us is how things work, they’d be disappointed. It was far more likely that we’d learn that a bunch of nincompoops had engaged in ad hoc, fitful, sort-of-collusion.
That appears to be what Mueller concluded about what happened in 2016, though the often naked and public obstruction of justice in which President Trump engaged is a separate matter. So while we await the public release of the full report so we don't have to rely on the word of an attorney general whom Trump likely picked for the job precisely because he wrote a memo attacking the Mueller investigation, there are many important questions that remain. Here are some of them:
What is the full list of things Trump did that might have constituted obstruction of justice, and what’s the argument for why they don’t? Barr’s letter says Mueller declined to make a determination on whether the president obstructed justice, so Barr decided that he didn’t. Barr also says that most of Trump’s actions in this area have been publicly reported. That would have to include his urging then-FBI Director James B. Comey to lay off the investigation of Michael Flynn, his reported attempt to get Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to pressure the FBI to back off Flynn, and his firing of Comey, which he told both a national TV audience and the Russian foreign minister and ambassador he did in order to quash the Russia investigation. So what did Trump do that hasn’t yet been publicly reported?
Why did Trump lie so often about Russia if it was all innocent? While running for president, praising Vladimir Putin and suggesting the lifting of sanctions on Russia, Trump was pursuing an enormously lucrative deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. He repeatedly lied about it, claiming he was actively avoiding doing business there. He also personally dictated a false statement about the infamous Trump Tower meeting at which his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman sought damaging information on Hillary Clinton they had been told was coming from the Russian government. Once those lies were revealed, Trump insisted that the underlying facts he was lying to cover up were in fact perfectly innocent. So why did he try to conceal them?
Why did so many Trump associates lie about their contacts with Russians? Donald Trump Jr. lied about the Trump Tower meeting. Rudolph W. Giuliani lied about the Trump Tower meeting. Michael Cohen lied to Congress about Trump’s efforts to secure a Moscow deal. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Paul Manafort lied about his relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik. George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about his efforts to obtain dirt on Clinton from Russia. Roger Stone will be tried on charges he lied about his contacts with WikiLeaks, the vehicle Russia used to disseminate the emails it stole from Democrats.
It’s almost as if all these people knew they had done something wrong and didn’t want to be discovered.
What else has Mueller referred to other prosecutors that we don’t already know about? Because Mueller’s investigation centered on Russian interference in the 2016 election, in some cases when he came across criminal behavior he passed what he had learned to other prosecutors. For instance, Cohen is being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney in New York, for actions both related and unrelated to the president. What other potential crimes did Mueller uncover and refer to prosecutors, and what is happening with those investigations?
Will Mueller testify before Congress? Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has already said he plans to ask Barr to testify about this report. But we could learn even more if Mueller himself were to do so. Is that going to happen? And if so, when?
What happened to the Trump campaign polling data Manafort passed to Kilimnik? Manafort gave Kilimnik, his associate who is widely believed to have strong links to Russian intelligence, the campaign’s polling data for a reason. Was it so Kilimnik would pass it to the Russian oligarchs with whom he was in contact, so that they could then give it to the Kremlin to aid in the project to help Trump win the election? Do any of our intelligence agencies have any idea if that happened?
Is there any reason to think Russia won’t try to help Trump get reelected? There are multiple reasons that Vladimir Putin would have sought to get Trump into the White House in 2016. Even if you don’t think Trump was compromised in some kind of specific way that would allow him to be blackmailed, Putin has long sought to sow chaos and disorder in Western democracies, which Trump certainly brings. There was also Putin’s long antipathy toward Clinton, Trump’s eagerness to denigrate and undermine the Western alliance, and the fact that he seems to turn into something like a tween girl meeting Justin Bieber every time he is in Putin’s presence.
Given the fact that in 2016 Russia got an enormous return on its relatively modest investment in aiding the Trump campaign, there’s little reason to think it won’t restart the same effort in 2020 to keep Trump in office. What do we know so far about what the Russians might do, and how do we intend to fight it?
And when the Russians do ramp up their Trump reelection effort, is the president once again going to encourage them?
These are just some of the questions we still need answers to. This scandal is not over, not by a long shot.