It’s not the crime, but the cover-up.
This is the lesson that came out of Watergate: when it comes to criminal investigations of a scandal, it’s not usually the thing being investigated that gets people into trouble—it’s what they do to try to keep the facts of the matter from coming out. The lesson is nearly fifty years old, but apparently, it just hasn’t sunk in for some people yet.
That’s the chief takeaway I got from finally working my way through the Mueller Report. I’ll discuss that in more detail a little later, but first I’ll go over how I read it. After finding the original PDF just too hard on my eyes, I turned to two alternate sources: the Kindle ebook with ancillary material by the Washington Post, and the free Audible audiobook recording.
The Audible Audiobook
I only listened to about an hour out of this 19-hour recording, but it was enough to get a feel for how it was put together. This free audiobook seems to be an original production for Audible, as it uses different narrators from the other Audible version, that of the Washington Post book I’ll discuss shortly. Oddly enough, the Washington Post version is only 11 minutes longer, despite all the extra material it contains. Perhaps its narrators read it faster. Both Audible books do use multiple narrators, presumably so they could record different sections of the Mueller Report in parallel and have the whole thing available right away.
The narrator of the part I heard was clear and easy to understand, but that’s to be expected from an operation as experienced as Audible. The thing that most impressed me was the editorial attention that went into dealing with footnotes. The audiobook recording interpolated those footnotes that had significant amounts of relevant text, but left all the rest alone. I rather liked this method of presenting them, and if I had more time I would have listened to more of the book that way—it saved me from having to keep flipping back and forth to see if there was going to be something relevant or just a source citation. The ebook I was reading might make the flipping as easy as tapping links on the screen, but it’s still a distraction.
Redactions were handled simply by saying “Redacted” and the reason, such as “Redacted: Grand jury investigation” or “Redacted: Ongoing matter.” Without a visual representation, there wasn’t any way to tell how much was redacted, but it worked well enough as an indicator that something was.
If you find the text of the report too dry to wade through, and think you might absorb it better with someone reading it to you, this audiobook is a good alternative. And as far as price goes, you just can’t beat free.
The Washington Post Ebook
I started out trying to read the report via the free government PDF, but soon realized that wasn’t going to work. I was reading on my Fire HD 10 tablet, and the PDF text was blurry enough to make reading it on that size of screen a chore. I had already seen that the Washington Post version had been reformatted for ebook reading, and I’d enjoyed the Post‘s other coverage (I subscribe via the Fire app), so I decided $7.99 wasn’t a bad price to pay for that.
Overall, it was a good investment. There was a decent amount of additional material, including an introduction that puts the events covered in the report into context (which you can read using the Kindle sample or Amazon’s look-inside-the-book feature) and a biographical article contrasting the courses of Mueller’s and Trump’s lives. But the central feature is, of course, the report itself, formatted for easy reading on a screen the size of a phone, tablet, or Kindle. And the formatting has some nice flourishes.
Redactions are both color-coded and punctuation-coded. The color coding is useful when reading the report on a color device, but if you’re reading on an e-ink Kindle (or, presumably, in print) you can still tell what kind of redaction it is by what symbol is used. (If you memorized the key, at least.) Footnotes are hyperlinked and listed at the end of each chapter, which is probably the best you can get in an ebook format document. This is one case where I think reading it in print might actually have an advantage—while tapping on the little numbers to go back and forth works, it would have been much more convenient to be able to place a bookmark or finger in the footnote section and flip back and forth at need.
In one way, though, this ebook is a return to the “bad old days” of pre-electronic manuscript OCR ebook conversion. It’s rife with transcription errors—misplaced paragraph breaks, missing punctuation, and mis-recognized characters. The right-bracket ] appears as a lower-case “j” a few times, and there are a couple of places where “Manafort” is rendered as “Manaforf”.
It is understandable how this could have happened in the necessary rush to have the book manuscript ready as soon as possible after the PDF came out, with such lousy source material to work from. There wouldn’t have been enough time to give it as thorough a proofread as one might hope. I would hope that the publisher might find the time to revise the edit now that the rush is over, and perhaps have a corrected version by the time of the next printing, but I’m not sure how likely it is that the publisher or Amazon will want to fix the Kindle version. Any update to the Kindle ebook would necessarily clobber any highlights or notes users had made on the previous version, potentially leading to consumer irritation—and if there’s a book people are more likely to want to highlight or notate than the Mueller Report, I’m not sure what it is.
All in all, though, $7.99 is a very decent price for the conversion job and extra material. Surprisingly so, in fact; after publishers were so upset over Amazon pricing bestsellers below $9.99 that they fomented their own conspiracy to break the law, it’s odd to see them pricing what is sure to be one of the best sellers of this year at $7.99 themselves. But perhaps it’s not so surprising after all; they don’t have to pay any creative author for the majority of the content, plus they know they have to compete with lower-cost conversions (such as this $1.99 Kindle version from Melville House and Penguin) and the free original PDF.
The Mueller Report
Although somewhat dry, the report itself makes for very interesting reading (or listening). There are some parts that are fairly hard to follow for non-lawyers (I only skimmed over the section discussing the legal theory of how to apply obstruction of justice charges to the President), but most of it tells a compelling story—or, rather, two compelling stories.
There actually aren’t as many redactions as I was afraid there might be. The report is largely clear and consistent even considering the missing parts, though they do often make me insanely curious as to what exactly was omitted.
And sometimes they drive me a little crazy—case in point, this paragraph, where an entire sentence is redacted except for the very first word, “at”. Why would they do that? If they mean to say something happened at some particular time, why not leave what time they’re talking about at least? If they meant to redact the entire thing, why leave one word? Argh!
The first section of the report covers the matter the Special Prosecutor was actually appointed to investigate: the question of Russian interference with the 2016 election, and how much contact there was between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Volume I: Russian Interference
While I wouldn’t go so far as Trump’s triumphant claim of “Total! Exoneration!” the investigation turned up practically nothing illegal in the Trump campaign’s behavior. It is true that there was plenty of illegal Russian interference, in the form of extensive “astroturf” (that is, fake grass-roots) campaigns on social media, and extensive hacking campaigns against Democratic email servers. However, while some agents from the astroturf campaigns did contact the Trump campaign for things like campaign materials, none of Trump’s staffers knew who they really were as far as the report could determine.
And as far as contact with Putin’s government goes, the rest of this section of the report is filled with story after story of attempts by Trump’s campaign to establish backchannel contact with Putin and attempts by Putin’s government to establish backchannel contact with Trump—none of which actually came to anything. It’s almost embarrassing to see so many fumbles. You get the feeling that the Trump campaign would have been happy to conspire with the Russians—but they just weren’t competent enough to actually do any conspiring.
The closest that the Trump campaign actually came to conspiracy with Russians was a meeting between members of the campaign including Donald Trump Jr. and some Russian agents who promised to deliver some dirt on the Clintons. Donald Jr. famously emailed back, “If it’s what you say it is, I love it,” when setting up the meeting—but it actually turned out not to be what they said it was.
As nearly as I could make out from the report, the promised “dirt” was not actually anything of substance; it mainly served as a pretext for the Russians to lobby the campaign about sanctions that had been imposed on Russia several years before. (The Russians had retaliated by cutting off American adoption of Russian children, which at least allowed Trump to use the excuse that the meeting had been entirely about adoption issues when he tried to deflect attention from it later on.) Mueller’s office considered whether this could count as a foreign “contribution” in violation of campaign finance laws, but determined there wasn’t any way to put a value on the information the campaign received—if, indeed, they received anything of value at all out of it.
Apart from that, the only major questionable matter was that Trump was still trying to pursue a Trump Tower Moscow real-estate deal several months after the campaign had claimed he had stopped—certainly questionable from an ethical standpoint, but probably not illegal. In any case, the deal ended up petering out anyway—several months after Trump actually said it did.
There was also a meeting that campaign staffer Michael Flynn took with a Russian ambassador in which he asked that Putin not retaliate to sanctions President Obama had imposed on Russia for meddling in the election, to which Putin subsequently agreed. There wasn’t necessarily anything illegal about that, either, but it wouldn’t have looked good given that Trump’s election could have been due at least in part to that meddling—and Michael Flynn got in trouble for lying about that meeting later.
Mueller’s office did find that the Trump campaign was aware Russians were interfering, and was happy about it because the Russians were interfering on their behalf. And it’s clear the Russians wanted Trump in the White House, because he had closer relations with Russia as a plank in his campaign platform. But finding a legal “conspiracy” requires proof that the two parties were actually coordinating their efforts, and Mueller’s office couldn’t find any. There was no direct quid pro quo; there was a lot of quo on both sides, but no sign of any actual quid exchanged for it.
All in all, there was plenty of illegal activity by the Russians, and a number of charges were filed against the Russian operatives and agencies behind it. It is unlikely any of them will ever be brought to justice, however—if they’re wise, none of the Russian agents involved will ever visit any nation that has an extradition treaty with the U.S. Besides, they had the backing of their government. (It might make great grist for a Chuck Norris-style action movie about covert bounty hunters going into Russia to kidnap them to face justice, but that kind of thing only happens in the movies.)
There was no proof the Trump campaign did anything illegal in regard to that Russian interference—or, at least, there was nothing Mueller was willing to charge them for. There would be a number of charges filed for other things, however—but I’ll be getting to that.
It was after the investigation kicked off that Trump’s real problems began.
Volume II: Obstruction of Justice
The second section of the report covers Trump’s reaction to the beginning and ongoing investigation—and this is the part that really makes Trump look bad. The account of his behavior over the months that followed his inauguration makes it clear that the White House is occupied by a petulant man-baby ruled by his passions—chief among them fear and anger.
According to the report, Trump was trying to interfere with a putative investigation before the Special Prosecutor had even been appointed. He angrily disagreed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of his role in the Trump campaign, believing that Sessions should have remained in charge in order to “protect” him from it—and subsequently asked Sessions several times to “unrecuse” himself (but Sessions always refused). He fired FBI director James Comey for refusing to state publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation—and in the termination letter made sure to thank Comey for telling him he wasn’t under investigation three times. (Then Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lied to the press, twice, about why he was fired.)
When the Special Prosecutor was appointed, Trump was aghast. According to witnesses, he believed it effectively meant the end of his Presidency. He tried to accuse Mueller of having conflicts of interest, including over such trivial matters as a dispute over membership fees to a Trump-owned golf club. When that didn’t work, he tried to have White House counsel Don McGahn fire Mueller (which McGahn elected not to do), and later on tried to have McGahn deny a news story stating that Trump had told him to fire Mueller (which McGahn refused to do because it would be a lie).
When members of the administration were indicted for lying to Congress and the FBI, Trump would make suggestive tweets about what great people they were, and how he just happened to have the power to pardon great people like that if they stayed the course and didn’t turn on him. But when his former lawyer Michael Cohen started cooperating with Mueller, his public comments abruptly stopped saying Cohen was a great guy and started saying Cohen was a liar whose family members were probably guilty of criminal activity. (He does run hot and cold, doesn’t he?)
And those are just the high points.
As I said earlier, the thing that really sinks conspirators in a scandal isn’t what they actually did—it’s what they did afterward to try to cover those earlier things up. The “Russiagate” matter covered by the Mueller Report is no exception to this. Three key members of Trump’s campaign and administration—Paul Manfort, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen—got in trouble not for what they actually did, but for lying about it to the FBI, Congress, and the Special Prosecutor’s office itself, presumably out of loyalty to President Trump (or fear of what he might do if they crossed him). (Manafort also got in trouble for some work he had done for foreign governments long before the Trump campaign, but not for anything he did during the campaign itself.)
(And there may be a fourth member, too—the section talking about Manfort and Flynn has sections about some other person redacted using the “ongoing matter” color. Wonder who that is?)
I’ll bet they’re wishing they’d told the truth now.
But, those liars aside, I find that I’m forced to admit that there can be Republican politicians with actual personal integrity—or, at least, who act as if they have personal integrity. Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation and refusing to unrecuse, James Comey refusing to testify (probably falsely) that Trump wasn’t being investigated, Don McGahn refusing to fire Mueller and then refusing to lie about it, Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland refusing to write a letter saying Trump hadn’t told Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador because she didn’t have any way of knowing if that was true…to Trump’s great consternation, he somehow managed to surround himself with people who had better morals than he did. Even if they were only acting out of enlightened self-interest, knowing how bad they’d come off if and when the truth eventually came out, that’s still more enlightenment than Trump ever showed.
And, speaking of Republicans with integrity, Mueller himself is a Republican, so there’s little chance that the report could have been a partisan hit job. From the amount of time and effort that went into preparing this report, it seems clear he was moved to do the best job he could, to remove as much doubt as possible as to the veracity of the results.
What was Trump so afraid of, that he felt the need to lie and direct others to lie for him about it? When the truth came out about the campaign’s involvement or lack thereof with the Russians, it actually didn’t reflect that badly on them—but what came after sure did. Did he just not want to look bad at all? Proverbs 28:1 comes inexorably to mind: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.”
The Obstruction Question
But did Donald Trump’s behavior actually constitute true obstruction of justice? It’s an interesting question—not least for the way Mueller largely dodged it in his report. Though not without reason.
The only entity with the ability to try a sitting President is Congress, under articles of impeachment. Under the current Justice Department interpretation of the law, a sitting President can’t be indicted, either publicly or via a sealed indictment, because it would effectively undermine the authority of the office—the President couldn’t have his day in court to clear his name unless Congress impeached him.
With that in mind, Mueller elected not to express an opinion on whether Trump obstructed justice, because it wouldn’t be fair to lay an accusation with no way to defend it—though he left open the possibility of charging Trump after he leaves office. And when you get right down to it, it was more like half an opinion Mueller didn’t express—because he said that if they’d determined beyond doubt that Trump didn’t obstruct justice, they’d say so…and they weren’t saying so. In other words, Mueller isn’t saying Trump did obstruct justice, but he’s not saying he didn’t either. So the question instead devolves to Congress, which has the power to impeach Trump if it sees fit, and to the American people, who have the power to vote him out of office if they see fit (opening him to a possible criminal prosecution if he escapes impeachment).
The Investigation Goes Forward
Congress is beginning to investigate and consider impeachment, though they seem determined not to make the same mistake they did with Clinton and rush into it. They’re demanding access to an unredacted version of the report, though whether they’ll get it—and whether the public will also get it—seems to be up in the air.
If you thought that Trump would declare victory and move on, you’re sadly mistaken. He seems more determined than ever to adopt an adversarial position to Congress, trying to obstruct their further investigations at every turn. And, after reading of his behavior in detail in the second section of the Mueller Report, I sadly can’t say that I’m very surprised. He’s continuing to follow the same pattern of letting his fears and his rages dictate his actions, and probably will for as long as he remains in office.
In any case, the Mueller Report is a rare inside look at the inner workings of Trump’s campaign and Presidency. Prepared by a fellow Republican, this report lifts the rock on the highest office in the land. If we don’t like what scuttles out, we’ll just have to do a better job choosing when 2020 comes around.
Great and unconventional review. At some point governments are going to have to develop a workflow to deliver epub and mobi outputs I would be curious about how big the respective files are. It’s a good thing that these publishers are reformatting these texts for public consumption, but you have to wonder why it has taken the feds so long to adopt an ebook standard for ebooks employing responsive design.
I remember reading and being gobsmacked by the Starr report when it came out – I read it online. What a salacious report!
It was amazing how quickly journalists and bloggers tore into the report to find pullquotes, but it’s also good having somebody describe the report as a narrative — how readable is it to read? Good job, Chris.
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I’ve always said Trump is trying to cover up something the Russians know about, that isn’t particularly illegal. Just something he’s embarrassed about or which would make him seem small. In the process of the cover-up, he may have committed worse crimes.
As you mentioned, one of the worst things in these cases is trying to spare oneself the embarrassment. The Russians are shameless & apparently incompetent. Trump was shameful & incompetent. The salvation of the Republic seems to hang on this kind of lunacy throughout history.