Late Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was so dismayed by Attorney General William P. Barr’s characterization of the findings detailed in Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election that he wrote an official letter to register plainly his indignation:
“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions. . . . There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Mueller’s scolding makes sense. But his seeming surprise that his report — which issued no clear prosecutorial judgment — was misused reveals a troubling lack of shrewdness, and a bewildering obliviousness to realpolitik. The real surprise is that a man as wise and thorough and experienced as Mueller would have failed to take into consideration the motivations of powerful men to misconstrue his findings, given the chance. He gave them that chance.
Here’s what Barr made of it. In the summary letter that Mueller took issue with, Barr wrote: “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.’” The actual Mueller report began the quoted sentence this way: “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….”
Further, Barr in his summary letter wrote that “The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” But here’s what Mueller actually said about obstruction in his report: “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
Picture the 448-page report that Mueller gave the attorney general in March as a silver coin that had no value stamped upon its face but had a tacit, pre-assessed value nonetheless. Here, I’m thinking back to Nietzsche’s notion that all questions of truth and lie — or, these days, fact and alternative fact — are inextricably tied to language.
In that document, Mueller’s team made clear the value the coin ought to have, and suggested Congress read the report, then stamp the proper value upon it. But Barr circumvented Congress, thwarting Mueller’s intent. He issued a four-page summary letter of the report that carved out and remolded its findings in a way that profited his boss, President Trump. After doing this, he delayed the release of the (redacted) report for a month, giving his mischaracterization time to spread and sink in.
This act was like taking a blank coin, stamping a false value upon it and putting it into circulation. Because Mueller had minced words, Barr had the opportunity to mint them, robbing the Mueller report of its meaning by deliberately recasting it for personal, partisan advantage. In essence, Mueller was tricked, the work of his team was subverted, and the American public was defrauded.
Mueller is widely regarded as an extraordinarily honorable man; perhaps his virtue, his respect for the rule of law and his habit of institutional decorum prevented him from foreseeing this outcome. Playing by the rules of the rule of law, he discounted the possibility that others would disregard them. Perhaps his high-mindedness prevented him from attaching his own prosecutorial verdict to the text he handed over, or rather, surrendered, to Barr in March.
But it is not unusual for the subjects of criminal investigations to behave dishonorably, to disrespect the law or to flout decorum. A decorum that affords the unscrupulous the opportunity to mislead the public is not a virtue; it is a danger to democracy. When Mueller handed over that report to the president’s man in March, with no value stamped upon it, he made himself vulnerable to a swindle, in which one narrative was switched for another, a bag of bank notes turning into scrap as it changed hands.
There’s only one way for Mueller to right this wrong, and it may be too late. It is to restore the correct value to his report by publicly and firmly stating before Congress the true import of his team’s findings in direct and non-euphemistic language. Only by doing this can Mueller stamp an impression on the public mind that might be strong enough and deep enough to blot out and replace the false value that Barr assigned it in March. To rescue this report, Mueller must remint it. Whether this works, it is the only chance he has of regaining any sort of advantage in the war on truth waged by this administration.