Why you should care
Because impeachment is on the line.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr released a summary of the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller, after a nearly two-year investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. To make sense of it all, OZY brings you voices from different sides of the debate. Here is John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director and OZY columnist.
What questions did the Barr summary answer for you, and what is still missing?
Assuming the summary is correct, we learned that Mueller did not find conclusive evidence that anyone in the campaign or Trump himself cooperated with the Russians in their covert action operation to favor Trump and to influence and divide American voters. We also learned that Mueller could not come to a conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice — he neither accused him nor exonerated him — and that the attorney general has decided, in consultation with his deputy, that Mueller’s evidence does not support a judgment of obstruction.
What we don’t know is all of the detail behind these judgments. For example, what were the motives of so many people in the Trump campaign in having close to 100 contacts with Russian individuals in the political and business world? Why did many of them lie about these contacts? Was the problem in making a judgment about obstruction that the evidence was too thin on the issue of intent, which is apparently crucial to arriving at a judgment that obstruction occurred?
The media has to be careful to not keep trying to prove the collusion case after lionizing Mueller all these months as the nation’s primary truth teller.
What are the next steps for Congress?
Congressional Democrats have already insisted on seeing the entire text of the Mueller report, and I believe they are certain to insist that Mueller and Attorney General Barr testify, even if they must be subpoenaed. I believe they will testify voluntarily. Meanwhile, the intelligence committees in both houses and the judiciary committees have investigations underway on many aspects of the Russian interference and the president’s behavior.
I may be in the minority, but I think congressional Democrats will make a big political mistake if they dive down the rabbit hole of trying to relitigate Mueller’s report, attempting to prove what he apparently was reluctant to conclude. House Speaker Pelosi has ruled out impeachment without a very powerful case and bipartisan consensus. This report makes it near impossible to bring the Republicans along unless other investigations turn up something unassailably damning.
Trump’s opponents may find some profit in keeping alive the collusion and obstruction issues, but in my view they now need to focus on his performance as president and on who he has revealed himself to be. He is still the man who questioned Barack Obama‘s birthplace, who failed to deliver on healthcare, who falsely promised that Mexico would pay for a wall on our southern border, who mocked a disabled journalist, and who lies routinely, calls opponents schoolyard names, insults allies, continues to attack a dead war hero (John McCain) and who was favored by the Russians in our last election. All pretty good campaign material.
Should obstruction of justice be enough to indict a sitting president?
In my opinion, yes. But the bar would have to be very, very high, and based on this summary revealed today it appears Mueller did not think it was high enough. I recall discussing standards for evidence with Mueller when we were in government together, and he has a very high bar for what is provable. The argument will go on, but I strongly suspect that judgment will stand when all is said and done.
How much of Mueller’s findings do you expect will be classified?
It may be that Mueller’s team has already written an unclassified version of the report. That is fairly common in situations like this. If they have not and if the report has to be declassified, they will probably take out only the minimum required to respect laws concerning privacy and intelligence sources and methods used to obtain some of the data. Without seeing the report it’s impossible to estimate what proportion of the text that might affect.
Did the media and the public overstep in making ‘collusion’ connections?
Some in the media did, but frankly, the president’s own behavior, such as publicly inviting the Russians to find and reveal Hillary Clinton’s emails, invited such speculation. So did the famous Trump Tower meeting when a number of officials from the Trump family and campaign met with a Russian lawyer and others supposedly delivering dirt on Clinton. Add in Trump’s favoring Putin’s word on election interference over the clear evidence provided by the intelligence community, and it would’ve been hard for the media to avoid speculation about collusion.
Now that Mueller has rendered his judgment, however, the media has to be careful to not keep trying to prove the collusion case after lionizing Mueller all these months as the nation’s primary truth teller. That will look like sour grapes. And you can count on Trump weaponizing this report. If you were tired of hearing him say “no collusion” before, too bad; you are going to hear it over and over again, even louder and more insistently.
Special counsel Mueller’s mandate did not include investigating for stupidity and naïveté. In the end, those may be the explanations for much of the suspicious activity that has taken place during the last campaign and the first two years of the Trump presidency. Stupidity and naïveté in not recognizing the bait that Russia was throwing out and not immediately reporting Russian approaches to the FBI as more experienced politicians would know to do.
What does this report mean for Russia and Vladimir Putin? U.S.-Russian relations? How will Russians react to this news generally?
Russians will love parts of this report. They won’t like what Mueller says about their interference in the election, and they will continue to deny this. And they will use the “no collusion” piece of it to bolster their argument, saying this shows they were not interfering and that this was fake news. They will mash all of this together to claim innocence and are likely to try driving the point home with continued efforts to manipulate social media that reaches the American audience.
Will the ‘no-evidence’ ruling on collusion change Trump’s standing on the world stage?
I doubt it. His low standing comes not from this but from having withdrawn from so many international forums, such as the climate change agreement, Iran nuclear accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And from insulting so many of our allies, questioning the worth of our alliances.
What do you suspect is next for Robert Mueller?
I don’t know, but I suspect he will return to his Washington law firm, WilmerHale. But he is certain to be called upon to speak publicly, especially in congressional testimony, about the conclusions he came to, the process he used and the reasons behind his judgments.