It’s been a full week since the Russia investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, officially came to an end, as Mueller submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr. Shortly after that report was turned in, Barr released a letter to Congress, giving a public summary of his interpretations of the many-hundreds-of-pages long report.
Some in the media were quick to suggest that the letter was the same thing as the report itself, and that the findings from Mueller would not be much different than Barr’s abridged version of the investigation. But there are many questions still lingering about the Mueller investigation that Americans don’t know or understand, and it’s imperative that the full report, as unredacted as it can possibly be, is released sooner rather than later.
Particularly, Americans need to know more about the following:
- Barr wrote that Mueller found that there wasn’t any basis for charging President Donald Trump or members of his campaign team for allegedly colluding with the Russian government. Are charges not pending because they’d be difficult to prove, or because the president is innocent? Does the fact that Barr specifically mentioned the Russian government as an actor the president didn’t collude with matter, and did the investigation draw any conclusions about non-governmental Russian organizations that the campaign may have been working with?
- On the issue of obstruction of justice charges against Trump, Mueller declined to say whether the president seemed guilty on the matter. Instead, as Barr notes in his letter released last weekend, “for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.” From that, Barr looked at the evidence himself and concluded that no charges were warranted against the president. How did Barr reach those conclusions, and would an impartial investigator — one not just hired earlier this year by the very individual whom these issues relate to — express the same legal beliefs?
With these questions still on the minds of lawmakers and citizens alike, it was peculiar to me (although not the least bit surprising) that Trump and officials in his administration were quick to state that the report — which even they haven’t read — totally exonerated the president. Trump himself tweeted out the idea that he was vindicated as a result of the report, and repeated the line during a campaign-style rally in Michigan after the letter from Barr was released.
Yet Trump wasn’t totally exonerated — even Barr’s letter stated that Mueller never came to that conclusion within his report. “[w]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller wrote in the non-published report.
This got me to thinking: just what is the president’s strategy here? I’m of the mind that Barr isn’t an idiot — his not releasing the report just yet is not an indication that Mueller didfind evidence of collusion, and it may be the case that on the question of obstruction it could be interpreted either way. But I also believe that the report doesn’t paint Trump and members of his inner circle in a positive light.
Trump’s endgame here may be this: instead of actually being portrayed as an innocent actor in this entire ordeal, the report may in fact demonstrate some questionable and disturbing actions performed by him or by others on his behalf. Millions of Americans won’t like what gets revealed when the report is eventually released, even if it technically doesn’t lead to him being charged with a crime — so Trump may be trying to get “ahead” of the report by doing a victory lap that may not be deserved just quite yet.
Years ago when Trump was just starting his campaign, I wrote a column about a political concept I branded “toothpaste politics.” It’s a simple strategy: put an idea out to the public, and stand behind it, even if it’s outrageous and easy to refute. Its accuracy doesn’t matter so long as it paints you in a positive way or, better yet, hurts your political opponents.
Just likeiwhen you mistakenly squeeze too much toothpaste out of the tube, the information (or misinformation) you put “out there” is out for good, no matter how many fact-checkers say it’s wrong. You can’t put the toothpaste back in — and for millions of Americans who have already heard the questionable words you disseminated, they can’t be told any different.
Trump is a master of this method. When he says something outrageous and importantly, untrue, his followers still repeat it ad nauseum. And it will be the same with his “total exoneration” comments he has made over the past week.
If and when the Mueller report is released and reveals disturbing aspects of Trump’s actions on the campaign and during his presidency, what will those who defend the president have to say about them? “Total exoneration.”
Mueller also referred matters outside of his purview to other federal investigative offices. If and when the auxiliary investigations come across instances of malfeasance conducted by Trump (some of which do not involve Russia at all), what will Trump’s base of #MAGA supports spout out? “Total exoneration.”
And if acts of obstruction of justice seem to have been clearly made by this president while in office, despite what AG Barr has said, what will be the line that the president uses and those who still stand behind him will repeat? “Total exoneration.”
The overall point is this: Trump’s claims of “total exoneration” may not be accurate, or may be an exaggeration of what Mueller found in his inquiry. But the “toothpaste” has already been squeezed out of the tube — and supporters of Trump will continue to use it as a rallying cry in the months ahead, even if evidence surfaces that shows the president engaged in some pretty shady activities.