In the early days of “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1970s, original Weekend Update anchor Chevy Chase had a running gag in which he announced each week, with one variation or another, “In other news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”
The line was funny because it played on the fact that for weeks, Franco, the Spanish leader, had lingered near death, with American newscasts occasionally providing updates announcing that Franco was still alive. After Franco finally passed, Chase’s audience recognized his updates for their parody of a nonevent packaged as breaking news.
Similarly, in the wake of what seemed like breathless speculation that something might change from the summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report that Attorney General William P. Barr had issued earlier, Thursday’s lightly redacted release of the report unsurprisingly confirmed what Barr had already told us: Neither Donald Trump nor anyone with his campaign could be found to have conspired or coordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 election.
After my column this week crediting Fox News for being right all along about the Russian collusion allegations, I received numerous emails from readers suggesting that no such conclusions could be reached until the full report became public. This is confusing, because what Barr had shared in his earlier summary was exactly that — his office’s conclusions. Regardless of whatever additional details were later announced, as embarrassing as some might be, nothing was going to change those conclusions.
The report released Thursday revealed that, yes, Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 election. This is hardly news. Russia, China and other foreign powers have tried to influence and interfere with U.S. elections for years. Yes, the president should do more to express his concern about foreign interference and talk more often about what he’s doing to stop it. But he is no doubt irritated that it’s only under his watch — and since his election — that anyone, including the media, seems to care.
At his news conference Thursday, Barr reaffirmed the fact that despite the president’s sound and fury throughout the probe, the Trump White House cooperated with Mueller to an extraordinary degree. Unlike President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate — to which this episode has been endlessly compared — Trump never once asserted executive privilege. Barr also noted what even most laypersons understand about the law — Trump expressing anger and publicly venting his frustration do not equate to obstruction of justice. But the investigators’ refusal to state that the president did not commit obstruction of justice will almost certainly be the basis for further congressional probes led by Democrats.
It will take days to properly digest the Mueller report. A first reading shows plenty of fodder for political attacks by those inclined to make the report part of a campaign playbook. The report reveals embarrassing and regrettable actions by the president and others, but if we criminalized all embarrassing and regrettable acts, everyone would be under indictment. Still, there are damning lines, including one as simple as this from Page 1: “The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign.”
It also, of course, fills in those missing first lines from a partial sentence shared earlier by Barr and which, in hindsight, he should have released in totality: “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Another famous Weekend Update line was “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” a takeoff on how local anchors often opened their newscasts. After he was asked during his news conference why Mueller was not present, Barr clarified that the report was prepared for him and the Justice Department. It’s his report, not Mueller’s. For the next several days, weeks or months, everyone will be assuming the role of attorney general as they parse the report. But the real attorney general could well remind everyone, “I’m Bill Barr, and you’re not.”
At the end of the day, those using this report as political fodder should keep in mind that only the first shoe has dropped. Yet to come is Barr’s probe of how this all began, with what he has said might have been “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016. Already in the works is a Justice Department inspector general report involving the notorious Christopher Steele dossier. Those who spend the next few weeks making political hay with the Mueller report should keep in mind the other shoe that may well be dropping soon.