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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  "Document of the Decade" Drops
      •  Takeaways from the Mueller Report
      •  Mueller Report Headlines

"Document of the Decade" Drops

Some days—January 1, 1863; December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963—there is really only one news story. Yesterday was one of those days, as the Mueller report finally saw the light of day (a thousand or so redacted lines notwithstanding). There are enough moving parts here that we're going to break things up by looking at the dozen or so major storylines, one by one, organized by theme:

People:

  • AG William Barr: The day began with him, so our commentary will start with him, too. The press conference he held yesterday morning was precisely what everyone expected it to be: a spin job intended to give as much cover for Donald Trump as possible. He made a lengthy and somewhat rambling pro-Trump statement, and then opened the floor for "questions." However, the moment that the questions moved beyond softball-level difficulty, he ran for the hills. There was a near-universal consensus among the members of the commentariat that Barr is 100% in the bag for the President, and that whatever credibility he had coming into his second stint as AG is gone. That was even the storyline on Fox News, where Chris Wallace said that Barr "seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the attorney general." We also know now that it was absolutely correct to be suspicious of Barr's four-page summary of the report. While the AG was basically truthful in writing that Team Trump was cleared of colluding with Russia, his remarks about obstruction were grossly misleading.

    Interestingly, now that he's become the latest underling to sacrifice himself on the altar of Trump, Barr's role in this little drama is pretty much at an end. He's made the decisions he was empowered to make, and he's spun the spin he was able to spin. Now, things are pretty much out of his hands. Democrats in Congress will want some or all of the redactions removed from their copies of the report, and Barr will weigh in on that subject, but the ultimate decision will be in the hands of a federal judge. In a manner of minutes, the AG went from captain of the ship to cabin boy.

  • Donald Trump: There is a major win for him in the report, in that it clears him and his team of collusion with the Russians. He took many victory laps on Twitter, most of them (of course) grossly misrepresenting the truth. The "Game of Thrones" font made its return, for example (despite the fact that HBO told Trump to cut it out):


    The "no obstruction" claim, as we will discuss below, is much more false than it is true, which is bad news for Trump. Also bad news is that the single most quoted line in the whole report is the portion documenting Trump's response when he found out about Mueller's initial appointment: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fu**ed." Not exactly the words of a man with a clear conscience.

    Further, the roughly 60% of Americans who think Trump is a liar and a con man are going to find a great deal more evidence for that assessment in the report. The president's written answers to Mueller's questions were an exercise in obfuscation, with the President claiming at least 30 times that he just could not remember what the special counsel wanted to know (shades of Iran-Contra-era Ronald Reagan). Mueller was not impressed, and did not believe that Trump was being truthful. However, he concluded that there was no practical way to do better, since subpoenaing the president would have led to a lengthy court battle, and the investigation's primary task was to report on Russian interference in time to help protect the 2020 elections.

  • The White House Staff: The clown college...er, White House staff comes off looking especially bad in the report. Not only does Mueller repeatedly allude to their dishonesty and their interference with his work, he also makes clear that the White House is utterly dysfunctional. People do whatever they want, ignoring orders as they see fit, even those coming from the Oval Office. There is backbiting, double-crossing, and leaking aplenty. Most folks take notes about what they did and said each day, not for posterity, but so they will be in a position to defend themselves in court, should it come to that. All of these allegations have been made before, particularly in the books by Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward. However, it's much harder to dismiss Mueller's accounting as "fake news."

    The White House staffer who took a particularly big hit in the report was...press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Mueller documents several occasions where she told outright, baldfaced lies, such as the time she claimed that "countless" FBI agents told her they were happy about the termination of James Comey. That statement was true only if by "countless" you mean "zero." While the Press Secretary has invariably been willing to tote Trump's water with enthusiasm, everyone already knew she was truth-challenged, and now there is ironclad proof. Without at least some integrity, she's no more useful than Baghdad Bob. Given that she has reportedly been a short timer for a while, one wonders if she doesn't exit stage right as soon as the dust from yesterday has settled just a little bit (so that it looks like she's leaving of her own accord).

    The one White House staffer who comes off well (although he's a former staffer now) is previous White House counsel Don McGahn. According to Mueller, McGahn repeatedly refused to follow illegal or unethical orders, including an order to fire Mueller himself. McGahn was also one of the best sources for honest and accurate information, such that he appears on 66 of the 448 pages of the report (in other words, almost 15%).

  • Robert Mueller: Now that (most) of his work has been made public, the special counsel still smells like a rose. Nearly everyone is impressed with the thoroughness and care the report demonstrates, and—in stark contrast to his friend Bill Barr—nobody is suggesting that Mueller compromised himself or that he's just a partisan hack.

Crimes:

  • Collusion: It appears that, to the bitter end, everyone is going to use "collusion" instead of the more correct "conspiracy" here. In any event, Mueller cleared Team Trump of any criminal conduct in this area, concluding that he could not find the evidence necessary to clear the very high bar needed to prove criminal malfeasance.

    With that said, the claim that Trump & Co. were cleared of colluding with the Russians comes with two important caveats. The first of those is that Trump and many of his associates were less than forthcoming with Mueller, and—as the special counsel noted repeatedly—took aggressive steps to "materially impair" the investigation. So, one might say that Mueller did not conclude innocence as much as he concluded that there was no real possibility of proving guilt at the level needed for conviction in court (i.e., "beyond a reasonable doubt").

    The second caveat is that even if Team Trump was not guilty of colluding with the Russians, they were certainly being used by the Russians. For example, Mueller notes that just five hours after Trump suggested that Team Putin should hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails, they started trying to do so. In other words, Trump and his people were—to use the rather pointed, but entirely apropos Russian phrase—"useful idiots." Time has a good article on why the Trump campaign was so ripe for being used in this way. In short, the campaign was full of people (including his sons) who were desperately trying to score points with the Donald, and more than willing to do unethical things, and who are also somewhat naive about international diplomacy, U.S. election law, etc. No wonder Vlad saw them as there for the plucking.

  • Obstruction: This is really the key to the whole report, and is the area where Donald Trump was, and is, most exposed. It is true that Mueller did not feel he could charge the President with obstruction of justice, despite extensive evidence of guilt. There are several reasons that the special counsel felt that way, namely: (1) Justice Dept. policy forbidding the indictment of a sitting president; (2) Since there was no conspiracy, there was no underlying criminal investigation to obstruct (which is not a fatal flaw for an obstruction prosecution, but does make it much harder); (3) In many cases, underlings refused to carry out orders that would have been obstructionist; and (4) Presidential powers are pretty broad, and some of the things Trump did (like firing James Comey) could potentially be justified on that basis.

    That said, just because Mueller did not feel a criminal case was viable does not mean he threw up his arms and let the matter drop. Contrary to the Barr summary, the special counsel actually did reach a very clear conclusion on this front:
    The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.
    Translation: "Hey, Congress! This is exactly why impeachment exists, to account for behavior that may not be criminal, but may nonetheless constitute 'high crimes and misdemeanors.'"

    In case there was any doubt that the report is overall pretty damning for Trump, particularly on the obstruction front, Vox talked to a dozen legal experts to get their take. The general thrust of the piece is pretty well summed up by a line from Keith Whittington of Princeton University: "If this is what a complete and total exoneration looks like, I'd hate to see a damning report."

What's Next?:

  • The redactions: Since the material is hidden, it's hard to say too much about the redactions, other than that there are a lot of them. 36 pages' worth, in fact. CNN's staff did the yeoman work of breaking them down, both by total number, and by number of lines:

    Mueller report redactions gfx

    Overall, a little less than 10% of the report was redacted, including references to a dozen cases that were referred by Mueller to other investigators, and which are currently a mystery to the general public. So, even if Congressional Democrats have no luck with whatever federal judge they make their case to, some of these redactions will not remain a secret forever. Or for much longer, very likely.

  • For the Justice Dept.: The dozen ongoing investigations whose details are currently unknown are being conducted by folks who, unlike Mueller, do not have a limited mandate. Also, if Trump could not pull the trigger on firing Mueller, then he certainly won't be able to pull the trigger on firing, say, the whole SDNY. So, these are the folks who are now captaining the ship. And although we don't know where they're steering it, the odds are pretty good that it's in the directions that seem to have disappeared from Mueller's radar, like Jared Kushner's behavior, and the allegations of money laundering against the President.

  • For Republicans: For those Republicans who are not Donald Trump, the Mueller report is very good news, because their party is not guilty of collaborating with one of America's main enemies. The President may prove to be a millstone around their necks in other ways, but on the Mueller front, they can just repeat "no collusion" over and over, and be done with it.

  • For Democrats: In the short term, the Democrats (and, in particular, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA), have some rough waters ahead. On one hand, Mueller practically included an engraved invitation to impeach in his report. And, consistent with that, some members of Congress are champing at the bit, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) going so far as to say she will be happy to sponsor the articles of impeachment. On the other hand, there's nothing in Mueller's report that is damning enough to cause Senate Republicans to turn on the President, and so most Congressional Democrats think impeachment is ill-advised, and is likely to backfire. Party members will hold a conference call on Monday to discuss their next steps. Those steps are sure to include pressure to remove the redactions and doing what they can to hold Trump's feet to the fire and to protect the integrity of the 2020 elections, but impeachment is inconceivable unless something currently unknown and extremely damning comes to light.

    In the longer term, once the Democrats are all back on the same page, they are actually in a pretty good position. The majority of voters suspected that Trump and his team did indeed engage in bad behavior, and that the report did not exonerate him, regardless of Bill Barr's claims to the contrary. The report absolutely sustains those suspicions. And so, Trump may avoid impeachment or indictment while in the White House, but he will still run in 2020 as a deeply damaged candidate. And his coattails may well pull other Republicans down with him, even without collusion.

So, there you have it. Undoubtedly, this story is going to linger for a while, but that's pretty much where it stands at the end of day one, as we see it. (Z)

Takeaways from the Mueller Report

Now that you've read our take on the report, maybe you'd like to see what others are saying about it. Well, we live to serve. Here are the takeaways from many other outlets:

The Hill:

  • It's good news for Trump
  • Obstruction takes center stage
  • Trump was deeply concerned over Mueller appointment
  • Report sets up challenges for Pelosi
  • Mueller will be in congressional spotlight

Business Insider:

  • Trump's many attempts to exert control over the Russia probe failed largely because aides refused to carry out his orders
  • The Trump campaign "expected it would benefit" from Russia"s election interference
  • The real reason Mueller didn't charge Trump with obstruction
  • Mueller directly contradicted Barr on 'collusion'
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted to lying to the public about Comey's firing
  • Flynn told Mueller that Trump directed him to find deleted Hillary Clinton emails
  • In response to Mueller's written questions, Trump said he did 'not recall' or 'remember' or 'have an independent recollection' more than 30 times
  • Paul Manafort discussed much more than just 2016 Trump campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik
  • 'Substantial evidence corroborates' Comey's account of a key event before his firing over Trump's account
  • Mueller referred 14 criminal matters to other US Attorneys' offices—we only know about 2 of them

CNN:

  • Barr did A LOT of heavy lifting for Trump
  • Obstruction is going to be THE debate in the report
  • Trump is going to Trump
  • "No collusion," explained
  • Trump was even more involved in the investigation response than we knew
  • Mueller didn't exonerate Trump on obstruction because he couldn't
  • Trump was VERY worried about the special counsel
  • The Mueller report won't change Trump's political future
  • The next fight will be on obstruction—in Congress

Time Magazine:

  • Trump's response to Mueller's appointment: 'I'm f-cked'
  • Trump ordered a White House lawyer to fire Mueller
  • Trump didn't like his lawyer taking notes
  • A White House spokeswoman admitted she made up a Trump defense
  • Trump said he was just joking about asking Russia to find Clinton's emails
  • Trump fired Comey because he wouldn't publicly exonerate the President
  • How are Democrats responding?
  • How much of the report is redacted?

PBS:

  • Trump can be guilty of obstruction even if there was no underlying crime
  • Trump pressured witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation
  • Trump asked senior officials to lie or mislead the public
  • Trump tried to fire the special counsel
  • Trump's attempts to thwart the investigation were unsuccessful—because his aides didn't follow through

The Guardian (UK):

  • Obstruction inquiry finds numerous 'episodes' involving Trump
  • Trump campaign was 'receptive' to help from the Russians
  • Trump believed Mueller's appointment would end his presidency
  • Mueller could not prove Donald Trump Jr. 'willfully' violated the law
  • Sarah Sanders admitted she lied to press about Comey's firing
  • Mueller lays out case for Congress to investigate Trump on obstruction

The New York Times:

  • Trump did try to sabotage the investigation. His staff defied him
  • So many lies. So many changed stories
  • Fake news? Not so much
  • No obstruction? Not so fast
  • Evading an F.B.I. interview proved a successful strategy
  • No conclusive evidence of conspiracy, but lots of reason to investigate
  • Imagine reading this report cold

The Washington Post:

  • The real story on obstruction
  • More lines between Russians and the Trump campaign
  • Aides often ignore Trump's false and dubious directives
  • Many of Trump's "fake news" claims are disproven

Bloomberg:

  • Mueller Found Many Cases of Possible Obstruction
  • Congress Has Power to Act Further on Possible Obstruction
  • Mueller Couldn't Establish Trump Committed Underlying Crime
  • Mueller Considered Charges Over Trump Tower Meeting
  • Trump Worried Mueller Would End His Presidency
  • McGahn Prepared to Resign Over Push to Fire Mueller
  • Manafort Discussed Midwest Strategy, Ukraine With Russian
  • Mueller Criticizes Trump for 'Inadequate' Responses to Questions
  • Barr, Rosenstein Disagreed With Mueller Over Obstruction
  • Barr Has No Objections to Mueller Testimony to Congress

There are a number of recurring themes here, but the main one is obstruction, which is mentioned on every list but one, and appears 13 times across all of the lists. Clearly, William Barr was not successful at trying to pre-write history. (Z)

Mueller Report Headlines

And finally, let's look at this from one other angle. In the end, the Mueller report is neither 100% favorable to Trump nor 100% unfavorable. And so, as has been particularly clear throughout this week, this is now an exercise in PR and spin. Team Trump worked hard to get everything in place, and to hit the ground running on Thursday morning. Did it work? Well, here are the lead headlines from across the various media:

Left-leaning media:

  • The Washington Post: Mueller lays out evidence against Trump on obstruction, Russia
  • The New York Times: A Portrait of the White House and Its Culture of Dishonesty
  • CNN: Mueller had everything he needed to charge Trump with obstruction, but didn't
  • NBC News: Mueller didn't charge Trump—but his report is a brutal indictment
  • CBS News: The 10 times Trump may have obstructed justice, according to Mueller
  • MSNBC: Mueller reports 'avalanche of facts' on Trump obstruction
  • The Huffington Post: THE UGLY DETAILS
  • The New Republic: The Mueller Report's Lasting Damage to Trump
  • Politico: Inside Trump's years-long campaign to stymie the Russia investigation
  • The New Yorker: The Mueller Report Won't End Trump's Presidency, But It Sure Makes Him Look Bad

Right-leaning media:

  • Breitbart: Mueller Report 'Devastating,' 'Road Map' for Impeachment
  • Fox News: Trump's written responses to Mueller questions reveal occasional sass, swipes at Clinton
  • Red State: Watch: California Shoplifter Sticks Chainsaw Down His Pants
  • WND: CBS reporter asks Barr wrong question
  • The Hill: Mueller report poses new test for Dems
  • National Review: The Mueller Report Should Shock Our Conscience
  • Washington Times: Mueller's 'road map' for impeachment
  • The Blaze: Here's what the Mueller report said about the Seth Rich conspiracy—and how WikiLeaks is involved
  • The Bulwark: Portrait of the President as a Gangster
  • The Wall Street Journal: 'Putin Has Won': Mueller Report Details How Russia Interfered in 2016 Election
  • Gateway Pundit: BOOM! NOT GUILTY!

International media:

  • The Guardian (UK): Mueller links Trump and campaign to 11 instances of potential obstruction
  • Haaretz: Mueller Report Shows No Israeli or Saudi Links to 2016 Campaign
  • The Globe and Mail (Canada): Report reveals frantic efforts by Donald Trump to fire Robert Mueller
  • The Sydney Morning Herald: Mueller probe toxic but not fatal to Trump presidency
  • BBC: Democrats to press Trump over 'obstruction'
  • The Moscow Times: The Russia-Trump Links in Mueller's Report, Explained
  • Al Jazeera: US Democrats criticise William Barr over Mueller report release
  • Le Monde: The Russiagate debacle

The non-right-wing outlets are overwhelmingly approaching this story from an angle unfavorable to Donald Trump. The right-wing media is pretty evenly split between outlets who are joining in the unfavorable coverage, those who are focusing on some small angle (presumably as a distraction), and those who do not see a significant news story here and so are focusing on things like chainsaws in people's pants (we only gave one example, but there are many others). This exercise provides even more evidence that the efforts of Bill Barr and the administration to control the narrative were very unsuccessful. (Z)

Programming Note: This post is already at 5,000 words, which means we're pushing our luck. So, we will delay the Q&A again, either doing a double-long edition on Monday, or maybe a Mueller edition on Monday and a non-Mueller edition on Tuesday. Also, we will skip this week's candidate profile. As we said above, some days are one-story sort of days.

If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer, click here for submission instructions and previous Q & A's. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at corrections@electoral-vote.com.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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