Analysis | Your big questions about the Mueller report, answered

Analysis | Your big questions about the Mueller report, answered


Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III walks past the White House after attending services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington on March 24. (Cliff Owen/AP)

After nearly two years of work and weeks of waiting, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report has been released. The lightly redacted report runs more than 400 pages, and it offers new insight into ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia and whether Trump obstructed justice. See all the details here.

As part of our coverage, we asked you on Thursday what questions you had. Below are some questions I picked to answer. Check back as more answers will be added later.

Q: Do you see even the most remote possibility of impeachment proceedings beginning? Much as I desperately want to see the Trump administration gone, I can’t help but believe that a House vote for impeachment would destroy any hopes for a Democrat being elected to the White House in 2020 and might very well endanger the majority in the House. (Bruce, 69, Silver Spring, Md.)

A: I think the odds of impeachment were and continue to be very slim. Democratic leaders have decided they don’t want to do it for the very reason you note: The possibility that it would backfire.

There is always a chance things would get to a point that would push them over the edge — whether because of some new smoking gun or because the Democratic base simply demanded it — but I don’t see that coming from this report.

Q: Trump responded “I’m fucked” when he learned of the Mueller probe. That was early in his presidency. To what do you think he was referring? (Sandra Sell-Lee, 72, Bainbridge Island, Wash.)

A: I think it’s easy for Trump critics to read that and think, “He had something to hide!” An alternate theory would be that he believed the scrutiny by itself would be bad for his presidency — or that he truly believed the investigation meant to take him down.

Mueller actually addresses this in the report. After noting Trump’s potential obstruction motive wasn’t found to be an actual Russia conspiracy, Mueller adds: “But the evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns.”

Remember: Several people very close to Trump’s presidency have been found guilty or indicted: Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, etc. Trump has also been implicated in a campaign finance violation (though not accused of a crime) by the Southern District of New York. That might not have come to light were it not for the Mueller probe.

Q: Has Trump outwitted his opponents thus far? (Lawrence King, 71, Washington, D.C.)

A: To my mind, there are a couple of ways in which Trump has helped mitigate the damage from this report. One is his constant “no collusion” refrain, which kept the focus on that aspect of the probe, when it was always the one less likely to get him in trouble. If you know you’re innocent of something, you make the debate about that thing so that the final verdict looks like a complete exoneration.

The other thing he did is desensitize us. By constantly pushing the bounds of the debate and presidential conduct, he’s made all of this seem less shocking. If you had read this report in a vacuum without all the controversy of the past four years, I’m not sure how you’d read it as a good thing for Trump.

Q: How much money has the investigation of President Trump’s conduct cost the American taxpayer? (Laura Minnick, 54, Phoenix)

A: We will eventually know the answer to that, because it is required that expenditures be reported. Through Sept. 30, 2018, it had spent $25.2 million. It’s important to note that some of these are “indirect” costs, which means that staff members who were already funded to work on other things were simply moved over to the Mueller probe — meaning no additional cost (even as other priorities might have been negatively impacted).

But consider this: The investigation resulted in Manafort being forced to forfeit an estimated $22 million in New York real estate, in addition to several bank accounts and a potentially large insurance policy. It’s entirely possible that nearly offset the cost of the full probe.

Q: Was there any evidence supporting the claim that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to tell the FBI to stop the investigation? (Steve Eddy, 60, Lafayette, Ind.)

A: This is a point of significant contention. Daniel Coats said Trump never asked him, but others remembered it differently.

From the report: “Coats told this Office that the President never asked him to speak to [James B.] Comey about the FBI investigation. Some ODNI staffers, however, had a different recollection of how Coats described the meeting immediately after it occurred. According to senior ODNI official Michael Dempsey, Coats said after the meeting that the President had brought up the Russia investigation and asked him to contact Comey to see if there was a way to get past the investigation, get it over with, end it, or words to that effect. Dempsey said that Coats described the President’s comments as falling ‘somewhere between musing about hating the investigation’ and wanting Coats to ‘do something to stop it.’ Dempsey said Coats made it clear that he would not get involved with an ongoing FBI investigations.”

Another ODNI official, Edward Gistaro, told Mueller’s team that Coats said Trump had asked him what Coats could do to “help with the investigation.”

Q: Given the definition of “coordination” and that Paul Manafort shared campaign strategy and polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, and that Kilimnik provided Manafort with a “Peace Plan” that would provide a “backdoor” way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine, how is it that Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik are not considered “coordination”? (John Bruder, 56, Hawaii)

A: The report defines “coordination” thusly: “An agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” First, it’s not clear whether there was any quid pro quo agreement here. And second, while the Mueller team said Kilimnik had ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, he is not the “Russian government.”

There has been some suggestion that this was too high a bar for the collusion side of things, but that’s the bar that was set. So, even though the report says Manafort continued to share polling data after their August 2016 meeting, that apparently isn’t enough.

Q: The basis of this investigation stems from the dossier, which has been proven false yet was used to obtain FISA warrants. Will this lead AG Barr to investigate the potential illegal spying on the Trump campaign, election and current situation? (Grandy Allison, 42, Highland Falls, N.Y.)

A: As the Mueller report states, the investigation was launched not based upon the Steele dossier but because of the George Papadopoulos situation:

“In late July 2016, soon after WikiLeaks’ first release of stolen documents, a foreign government contacted the FBI about a May 2016 encounter with Trump Campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, Papadopoulos had suggested to a representative of that foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That information prompted the FBI on July 31, 2016, to open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump Campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities.”

The Steele dossier was used to obtain the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants for Carter Page, but it was part of a package of evidence. It’s also not true that the dossier has been proved false. Many of the claims have not been corroborated (including by the Mueller report) and some haven’t proved accurate.

As for these efforts to gain information from the likes of Papadopoulos and Page, Barr has already said he intends to investigate them.

Q: The Mueller Report expressly states (at least twice) that it didn’t want to interfere with Congress’s constitutional powers to hold the executive accountable for misconduct or crimes. Contrary to what Barr stated today, doesn’t the report, at a minimum, suggest it is up to Congress, not Barr, to determine if Trump obstructed justice? (Betty Bowers, 38, Atlanta)

A: Great question. The report does make a point of emphasizing Congress’s role in this. And that was always where this was headed, given existing Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president can’t be indicted. That means — even if Mueller said, “Trump obstructed justice” — it would be up to Congress to decide whether it warranted punishment, which would be via the impeachment process.

But Mueller decided it wasn’t his place to even make any allegation of a crime. He said he couldn’t clear Trump of obstruction but that he wouldn’t accuse him of it. That’s a key distinction, because it suggests it doesn’t matter how damning the evidence was. Either way, he wouldn’t call it a crime.

Two points: First, Barr has said that Mueller didn’t expressly ask him to make this call. Indeed, given that Mueller thought it wasn’t the Justice Department’s place, it makes you wonder how he feels about Barr’s decision. And second, Barr seemed to suggest this was more about the evidence being inconclusive. Mueller lays out both sides, but he doesn’t say he didn’t accuse Trump for lack of evidence.

Q: How can Team Trump claim it fully cooperated with the investigation when he refused to do a face-to-face interview? (Paul, 56, San Francisco)

A: This was a curious inclusion in Barr’s news conference Thursday morning. The White House did cooperate extensively by providing documents and making aides available for interviews. But Trump’s decision not to interview is a significant hole. I would argue that “full cooperation” would have included Trump granting an interview, rather than giving written answers.

Mueller clearly wanted to talk to Trump. In fact, he said he opted not to subpoena Trump because it would have prolonged the process significantly.

Q: Mueller says he did not have enough time to force a Trump interview. Why? Was Rosenstein, Barr, or someone forcing him to wrap up now? That answer isn’t in his report, but I would like to see Mueller asked it, should The Post get to talk with him. (Andrea E., 50, Southern California)

A: I thought this was curious, too. Here’s what Mueller said: “Ultimately, while we believed that we had the authority and legal justification to issue a grand jury subpoena to obtain the President’s testimony, we chose not to do so. We made that decision in view of the substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation.”

To me, this seems to concede that the Trump legal team’s delay tactics worked. It’s also odd that an investigation of such import would be concerned about a delay. If something is worth doing right, why not exhaust all avenues? I get that there was a reason not to let this drag out into a presidential election year, but emphasizing the time constraint does seem odd.

At the same time, I wonder if this speaks to the idea that Mueller already viewed the evidence as pretty damning — even if he opted not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. After the above quote, the report says, “We also assessed that based on the significant body of evidence we had already obtained of the President’s actions and his public and private statements describing or explaining those actions, we had sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony.”

Q: Is there any hope that under congressional questioning Barr would concede that Trump’s actions as regards the Russians and obstruction were, if not illegal, highly improper? (Steven Horwitz, 74, Moraga, Calif.)

A: I am doubtful of that, for a couple reasons. One is that Barr seems rather defensive of Trump’s actions and his state of mind when he took them. He also has a rather broad view of executive authority.

The second is that law enforcement officials tend not to venture into this kind of territory. Comey got plenty of stick for calling Hillary Clinton’s email server “extremely careless,” even as he wasn’t charging her with anything. I wouldn’t expect either Barr — or Mueller, for that matter — to show much leg if and when they testify.

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