Mueller Counted on Institutions to Grapple With His Report. They Didn’t.

Neither Congress nor the press did enough to tell the American people what they needed to know.

Robert Mueller
Carolyn Kaster / AP

About the author: Quinta Jurecic is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at Lawfare, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

On May 17, 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 29, 2019—a month after the release of his report on the investigation, and almost exactly two years after he was first appointed—Mueller finally spoke.

Based only on the reaction to Mueller’s appearance, you could be forgiven for assuming that he had dropped a bombshell. “Robert Mueller’s statement makes it clear: Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately,” tweeted the Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker. Booker’s fellow candidate Senator Kamala Harris had a similar reaction. Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell wrote, “Robert Mueller gave important context by saying ‘If we had confidence that the President did not commit a crime we would have said so.’” “This is huge,” said the CNN national-security reporter Jim Sciutto. Others pointed to Mueller’s comment that, on the basis of the Justice Department guidance against indicting a sitting president, “we concluded that we would not reach a determination … about whether the president committed a crime,” arguing that the statements definitively showed Attorney General William Barr’s previous comments on the matter to have been misleading.

The fact that this material is being treated as new when it has been available for weeks is indicative of a vast failure on the part of American institutions, which have not adequately grappled with the information conveyed in the Mueller report or presented it to the public with sufficient clarity.

For all the excitement, Mueller offered almost no substantive new information yesterday from the Justice Department podium. Mueller described a “concerted attack on our political system” by the Russian government and emphasized the existence of “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.” He reiterated that his office had not exonerated the president. He also said that “it is important that the office’s written work”—that is, the Mueller report—“speak for itself.” The (now former) special counsel’s comments were taken directly from the information already presented in the report—including the decision not to reach a conclusion about whether the evidence indicated that the president of the United States had obstructed justice.

The members of Congress and the media discussing Mueller’s comments as major news are not wrong to do so. Mueller has remained silent for two years, and his first public statement was always going to be a significant event. Likewise, the underlying information communicated in both Mueller’s remarks and the report itself is appalling—and further discussion of its meaning can only be good. The question is why it took so long to happen.

The difficulty in communicating the substance of the Mueller report began even before the report itself was released. When Barr first released his letter describing Mueller’s top-line conclusions weeks before the report itself became public, the press struggled to respond to the spin campaign mounted by the president and his allies. Some publications reported uncritically on the president’s claims of “Complete and Total EXONERATION,” though Barr’s letter stated that Mueller had not exonerated Trump. The New York Times and The Washington Post both said a “cloud” had been lifted from over the White House.

This was weeks before any members of Congress or the press had seen the actual text of the report—which differed dramatically from the relatively rosy version of events communicated by Barr. The attorney general, it soon became clear, had plucked supposedly exonerating phrases from the report while leaving out often-damning context. Barr’s summary gave the president and his allies two crucial weeks to portray the contents of the report in the most favorable light.

The report, when it arrived, was a forbidding 448 pages and dense with legal terminology. It was not user-friendly. And so, perhaps predictably, a CNN poll from early May indicated that 75 percent of Americans have not read the report at all; 24 percent said they had read some of its contents, and only 3 percent said they had reviewed the entire document. The result is that most people, lacking the time to pore through almost 450 pages of text, were dependent on the press and on political figures to communicate the significance of the document.

But the reaction to Mueller’s press conference suggests that those institutions have fallen down on the job. If the substance of Mueller’s report was widely known and understood, there would have been nothing surprising about his statements yesterday. In fact, he might not have felt the need to make a statement at all; as Ken White writes, Mueller’s tone was that of a teacher telling his students once again that they would know the answer if only they had done the reading.

The sheer lack of knowledge about the contents of the report was perhaps best communicated by Fox News’s Bret Baier, who commented after Mueller’s press conference:

This was not—as the president says time and time again—no collusion, no obstruction. It was much more nuanced than that. He said specifically they couldn’t find evidence to move forward with the crime of collusion for the investigation of the Trump campaign. He said specifically if they had found that the president did not commit a crime on obstruction, they would have said that, and then went into specific details about the DOJ policy and why they couldn’t move forward with anything else than their decision.

This is an excellent summary of what Mueller said. It’s also an excellent summary of the Mueller report itself, which has been a public document for more than a month. If Fox News viewers found any of this surprising, it’s because the network spent little time relaying those findings before now.

But the problem is not only on the Trump-friendly right. Consider Mueller’s comments on his decision not to reach a prosecution or declination decision, which were widely received as a rebuke to Barr. The special counsel’s office, Mueller said, “did not … make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime” because “under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.” Barr, by contrast, said before the release of the report that Mueller “was not saying that but for the [Justice Department opinion on indicting a president] he would have found a crime.” To be sure, Mueller’s comments yesterday do “reveal” Barr’s “spin,” as MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace put it. But so, too, did the report itself. The opening pages of Volume 2 describe in detail how Mueller read the Justice Department policy to preclude taking the steps that could lead to a decision to prosecute.

This is not the first time that the press has reported information already publicly available in the report as if it were new. After a federal court made public a handful of documents in the Michael Flynn case in mid-May, news outlets such as CNN’s wire service and Axios reported that Flynn had provided the special counsel’s office with evidence, in the form of a voicemail, of efforts by Trump’s team to persuade him not to cooperate with investigators. Yet the report already described a voicemail from Trump’s lawyers to Flynn—and even included a partial transcript.

But the institutional failures extend beyond the media. The report was difficult to digest and communicate in part because Barr chose to disseminate the entire document at once, rather than releasing the relatively brief summary language prepared by Mueller’s team for that purpose. If the attorney general had chosen to release Mueller’s summaries instead of choosing to protect the president by writing his own, perhaps Mueller’s message might have been easier for the public to understand and for the press to report.

And then there is Congress—perhaps the main target of Mueller’s entreaty to please just read the report. During his remarks, Mueller stated that, while he was precluded from bringing criminal charges against the president, the legal memo in question “says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” (The memorandum states that “the constitutionally specified impeachment process ensures that the immunity would not place the President ‘above the law.’”) Some members of Congress seemed to get the message: Following the press conference, both Booker and Harris released statements in support of impeachment hearings, each stating that Mueller’s comments had clarified for them that it was time for Congress to act. Others, such as House Homeland Security Committee Bennie Thompson, voiced new support for impeachment or impeachment proceedings as well.

But again, the status of the report as an impeachment referral should have been obvious the moment the document was released. Mueller wrote that “a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would … potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” indicating in a footnote that he was referring to the impeachment process. Members of Congress did not need to wait for Mueller to say those words out loud before putting two and two together. The fact that some apparently did is an indication that they, too, did not take the time to engage with the document.

Two notable exceptions here are Democratic Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren and Republican Representative Justin Amash—both of whom have made a point of reading the entire report and publicly discussing their conclusions. Both support impeachment.

In a democratic society, it would be ideal if citizens had the time to read and debate the contents of something as politically and constitutionally significant as the Mueller report. The fact is, however, that most don’t. The press plays an indispensable role in summarizing complicated documents and explaining their significance. In a representative democracy, the people elect members of Congress in part to weigh and discuss issues that are too complicated for most to grapple with on a day-to-day basis. As part of this bargain, elected officials also receive the responsibility of guiding their constituents toward an understanding of what principles are important, and which battles are worth fighting. If the House of Representatives continues to ignore Mueller’s nudge toward an impeachment inquiry, it will be failing to take up its basic constitutional responsibility to check presidential abuses—and failing in its duty of informing the public that it should care about those abuses.