Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder read and re-read the Mueller report, watched the House hearings and decided the report needed a crib sheet and a book review. This two-part analysis is the result. This is part one.
After I read the Mueller report on the 2016 election twice, I was so frustrated by its vague language that I dissected it using investigative reporting techniques.
Special counsel Robert Mueller made a consequential decision in drafting the report that created fog for readers like me. He decided not to clearly point fingers at wrongdoing he might have uncovered by President Donald Trump. As a result, the report did not “speak for itself” as Mueller claimed during a public appearance in May and congressional testimony on Wednesday. The report points with limp fingers and speaks with a fuzzy tongue.
Even so, I admired Mueller’s diligence and the work of his investigators. The evidence is eye-opening. As Mueller said, the report “deserves the attention of every American.”
Thankfully, in one area Mueller drew unmistakable conclusions. The Russians wanted Trump as president. They hacked the Democratic Party computers and duped American voters through social media to help get him elected. The Trump campaign welcomed their assistance.
But in other key parts of the report, Mueller uses phrases like “evidence supports the inference” to fill in for blunt prosecutorial decisions. Based on those terms, we might infer that Trump committed the crime of obstructing potential witnesses when his personal lawyer dangled a pardon to his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and when Trump himself called his longtime fixer Michael Cohen a “rat” while threatening his family.
Most people know that the team was prohibited from indicting a sitting president, based on a Justice Department opinion untested by federal courts. But the decision by the special counsel took it a step further, avoiding informally accusing Trump of any crimes because without a formal indictment the president couldn’t go to court to defend himself.
Did Mueller’s team exonerate Trump of anything?
My short answer is no, not in Vol. 1 regarding conspiracy or Vol. 2 regarding obstruction.
We now know that Mueller used the e-word substantively only three times in the report, each time to say that he would have declared the president exonerated of criminal obstruction if he so found, but he didn’t. A strong hint.
I counted a dozen obstruction allegations in Vol. 2 of the report, including separate efforts to silence three key witness. After I applied word analysis to its conclusions, my obstruction score was: Six "yes, he did it"; two "maybes"; three "nos" and, in one case, we don’t know because the section was redacted.
As for the allegations of conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it is well-reported that the umbrella finding in Vol. 1 was that the Trump campaign had “numerous links” to the Russians, and the Russians sought a Trump presidency. But “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges” for coordination or campaign violations.
I found that Mueller frequently used the term “did not establish” and variations to explain his fact finding and conclusions. Fortunately he defined the phrase, saying it “does not mean there was no evidence." Overall, in translating Vol. 1, I am confident Mueller felt he couldn’t prove conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s a tough standard.
But the special counsel didn’t uncover innocence. To put it another way, presidential candidate Trump didn’t provably conspire with the Russians — not beyond a reasonable doubt, anyway — but it wasn’t without trying. They were buddies with similar interests.
In the few instances where players were clearly found innocent, the report language was different. Mueller “established” that meetings between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador were “brief, public and non-substantive” and thus innocent.
Mueller’s hazy approach created bipartisan frustration. At Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats were upset that Mueller didn’t flatly accuse Trump of obstruction and Republicans criticized Mueller for “airing dirty laundry” about the president without resolving it. Moreover, the haziness has confused the public and perhaps left us vulnerable through inaction to future foreign interference.
Mueller said 2020 election interference is happening now.