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The Mueller report is shocking

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President Donald Trump said that he's having a good day, following Attorney General Bill Barr's news conference and just as special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report was released.

Posted: Apr 18, 2019 2:50 PM
Updated: Apr 18, 2019 2:50 PM

After a news conference by Attorney General William Barr, Congress and the public can access a redacted version of the Mueller report. Commentators will weigh in here throughout the day with smart takes on the Mueller report. The views expressed in this commentary are theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.

Julian Zelizer: Now it's up to Congress to act

The Mueller report is shocking. Despite the attorney general's efforts to provide exculpatory fodder for the President's Twitter feed, Congress should be greatly concerned about the contents.

The first section does not find that there is a criminal case to be made against the President. It shows a large number of very deliberative points of contact with officials connected to the Russian government who were interfering in the election. Trump "asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails," the report says, and that Michael Flynn "recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails."

Of course, we must also remember that Michael Cohen said in his testimony to Congress in February, Trump's style is also to make clear what needs to be done rather than saying it directly: campaign officials were seeking information that would help them.

The narrative in section one is a deeply troubling look at the nature of Trump's campaign, generating questions about how this all might have shaped his policy decisions, and what the expectations are for conducting the 2020 election campaign. Incidentally, it shows there was more than enough reason for intelligence agencies to look into what was happening.

The second section is damning. It does not exonerate him from obstruction of justice -- the charge at the heart of Presidents Nixon and Clinton impeachment process. The Mueller team found multiple instances where Trump tried to stifle a legitimate investigation into his own conduct.

Very often the only thing that saved him were advisors who wouldn't do what he wanted done. Combined with the public record -- the President's own words -- there is also ample evidence about what was motivating him. Just because he failed to stop an investigation doesn't mean he didn't try to do so. In fact, it is clear he did.

Indeed, if this is a "good" report for the President, it is hard to imagine what a bad one would look like.

It turns out that much of the news we have been reading was accurate, not fake -- about the Trump Tower project, about the contacts between campaign officials and individuals connected with Russia, and about the President's efforts to fire Mueller. It seems that numerous investigations spun out of Mueller's inquiry are very much in play.

It also turns out that the Department of Justice can't be depended upon to handle this independently, as Attorney General William Bar demonstrated this morning with his decidedly biased interpretation of the report.

The obligation to make sense of this information falls on Congress. House Democrats will be under immense pressure now to make sense of what it all adds up to and to determine whether the President abused his power. There will be great political pressure on House Democrats to avoid doing so -- after all, it is time to focus on the election -- but it would be a mistake to allow the activities outlined in this report to be normalized and to see accountability fall by the wayside.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book "Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974." Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer.

Barr mansplains away Trump's emotions

In a news conference so obsequious it would impress Kim Jong Un, Attorney General William Barr took great pains to flout the ethical requirements of his profession and instead behave as President Donald Trump's personal attorney, spokesman, and brand manager. There is, Barr said, "substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency." When a reporter asked about the appearance that Barr was protecting the President, "including acknowledging [Trump's] feelings and emotions," Barr responded, "Actually, the statements about his sincere beliefs are recognized in the report."

Men in an emotional tailspin have "sincere beliefs." Women who simply speak from expertise and from the heart are shrill (or, in Trump's take on Hillary Clinton, "She can be kind of sha-riiiiill").

Wild-eyed photos of politically powerful women inevitably illustrate articles about them on right-wing websites (and sometimes even in the mainstream press). Trump is perhaps the most emotionally unbalanced national politician in living memory, tweeting semi-literate all-caps outbursts and frothing up his followers with incoherent tirades. There is great irony in the fact that this extraordinarily emotional president is cast as acting badly because of his "beliefs," not his uncontrollable moods.

Anger isn't just an emotion when women express it, and feelings don't morph into beliefs just because it's men who are expressing them. Nor, of course, is frustration a defense to the alleged commission of a crime.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and the author of the book, "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness."

There's no case for impeachment in Mueller report, but strong evidence Russians helped elect Trump

For the last two years the operation of the American government has been largely paralyzed by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Donald Trump. Regardless of the spin put on the detailed findings of Mueller's probe by the political ideologues who dominate the public discussion of the Trump administration in Congress and in the media, there is insufficient evidence in the Mueller report to support the impeachment of the President based on Mueller's findings.

Whether you love Trump or hate Trump, he has the right to finish his term. In the next election, though, the American people can render their true verdict as to his fitness to remain in office. When they render that verdict, they are likely to be reminded that the underlying facts of the Mueller Investigation released today suggest that even though there was no active criminal "collusion," Russia may well have elected Trump.

The most worrisome aspect of Trump's election has always been the specter of Russian collusion influencing the outcome of the extremely close 2016 presidential race. Mueller's report states that there is insufficient evidence to establish presidential "collusion" (or what lawyers would call a criminal conspiracy) with the Russians.

While Mueller's conclusions will be quoted in support of Mr. Trump's "no collusion" mantras, the report reveals disturbing facts suggesting that the extremely close and controversial presidential election might have been thrown to Mr. Trump by Russian interference. Even if Trump and his campaign workers did not criminally conspire with the Russians, it remains quite possible that he is the President of the United States as a direct result of the active interference of Russian operatives in the election.

The report identifies the Internet Research Agency ("IRA") based in St. Petersburg, Russia and funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin and companies he controlled, as the moving force behind Russian interference in the US presidential election. Mueller describes this effort as a "... targeted operation that by early 2016 favored Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton. The IRA's operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States. To organize those rallies, IRA employees posed as U.S. grassroots entities and persons and made contact with Trump supporters and Trump Campaign officials in the United States."

The report further describes "cyber intrusions (hacking) and releases of hacked materials damaging the to the Clinton Campaign. The Russian intelligence service known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU) carried out these operations."

The movement of several thousand votes in a handful of large states would have shifted the election to Hillary Clinton. Trump's election occurred in large part because he carried Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. His margin of victory in those states was 77,000 votes out of a total of 136 million votes cast in the election. A shift of a mere 37,501 votes would have elected Hillary Clinton president.

Simple common sense suggests that Russian operatives as outlined in the report could well have engaged in sufficient covert and overt operations to have easily moved such a miniscule percentage of the voting population to Trump. Though Mr. Mueller steers clear of analyzing the likely movement of actual votes in the election and the probable impact of Russian tampering though social media, rallies and fake news, historians of the future are unlikely to be so deferential.

Mueller's report establishes that the fact of Russian interference on Trump's behalf is crystal clear.

Though Mueller finds no evidence of criminal collusion by Mr Trump or his campaign, there is objectively little reason for White House celebrations. Democrats can now persuasively argue that the Russians elected Trump.

Though not a "Manchurian Candidate," Donald Trump might more accurately be described as the "St. Petersburg Candidate." While pundits will endlessly argue about whether the Mueller evidence supports obstruction of the justice charges against the President, the nation's greater concern should be focused on Mueller's focus on Russia's obstruction of American democracy and how to block such interference in future elections.

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and of counsel to the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan.

Shan Wu: Why there is nothing black and white about the decision not to prosecute Trump

As we read through the 400-page redacted version of the Mueller report, we should keep in mind the theme of prosecutorial discretion. Put another way: the decision to criminally prosecute is not as black and white as we might like to think. Particularly in a case as sensitive as the Mueller probe and where a decision to indict a sitting President would raise complex issues of Constitutional law, the discretion of the prosecutors becomes critical.

Attorney General Barr--sounding like many advocates for Trump, including Trump's private lawyers—repeatedly makes Mueller's decision not to charge the President with obstruction sound like a scientific conclusion based on legal formulas. This is simply not true. The facts revealed in Mueller's report easily could have been charged as crimes.

Initial takes from the report suggest numerous deeply troubling actions by President Trump that a different prosecutor and a different Justice Department might have found warranted criminal charges. Here, however, Mueller appears to have been very cognizant of Justice Department policy that a sitting President should not be indicted, and specifically references the Constitutional issues and disturbance of the President's ability to govern that a criminal case would cause.

He also recognizes the role of Congress. This is a valid and reasonable decision to have made. But it is not a decision compelled by facts or law. It is an exercise of discretion.

Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor who also served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. His Twitter handle is @ShanlonWu.

The only thing missing from Barr's performance was a MAGA hat

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Attorney General William Barr may both be Republican loyalists, but they approached releasing their investigative reports with completely different objectives. Starr released an unvarnished screed directed at President Bill Clinton -- designed to drive him from office. Barr held a press briefing shortly before the report was actually released to make sure President Donald Trump can stay in office.

First, the law. Starr had largely unfettered power -- with no White House or Department of Justice oversight. His report was released without any advance briefings for Clinton's lawyers, and it left no sordid detail out. It was a document that almost begged House Republicans to impeach the President. In fact, Starr specifically and in writing denied Clinton's lawyers' access to the report in advance.

In the aftermath of Starr's overreach, Congress changed the independent counsel law -- requiring future special counsels to report directly to the attorney general, and thus paving the way for today's farce.

In fact, the only thing missing from Barr's performance was the Make America Great Again hat. He acted more as the President's defense attorney than as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. To begin with, Barr said he let the President's personal lawyers see the redacted report on multiple occasions, allowing Barr and the White House to coordinate on their basic legal talking points. And at his press briefing, he went one step further -- defending Trump's actions and saying he was motivated "by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks."

But Barr didn't stop there. While withholding the report from Congress, the media and the American public, he subjected us to a four-page summary of his own conclusions, including his personal sympathy for what the President has had to endure.

While Starr's release delivered a political punch to Clinton, he stuck to the reporting of the facts, as he gathered them. Barr took a different approach -- he cherry picked information from the report to report conclusions that the report itself does not appear to entirely support, such as the complex issue of obstruction (for which Mueller did not draw a conclusion).

Although Starr's rollout was painful to go through, in and of itself, it was fair. Barr's performance, by contrast, is an international embarrassment that will permanently stain our democracy.

So, where does that leave us? While Starr's release hurt the President, it also answered all the outstanding questions about his investigation. Barr, on the other hand, may have helped Trump in the short term -- but may have buried him down the road. After the Starr report was released, reporters had no further investigative questions, leaving only political ones. Barr, however, has created as many questions as the report answers.

Here's one thing to watch: On the day Starr released his report, Clinton's approval rating was at 63%. Shortly after, when the House voted on his impeachment, Clinton's rating soared to 73%. It's hard to see Trump's ratings jumping significantly after Thursday's release, given that questions will linger about how political Barr has become.

Just as the special counsel regulations yielded unintended consequences on Thursday, I think the political power play by Barr may just yield some unintended consequences of its own.

Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton's administration, is a CNN political commentator. He co-hosts the podcast "Words Matter."

The control-F search you should do on the Mueller report

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report is nearly 400 pages long. As a real-world reference point, the Modern Classics version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" runs 384 pages. Even if Attorney General William Barr makes so many color-coded redactions to Mueller's report that it looks like a pack of Skittles exploded, do not expect a standard law enforcement investigative recap. We are about to get hit with a novel-length tome.

Strategies abound for how best to read the report. Here's my suggested first move: use the "find" function. Hit control-F and plug in these five keywords to get a quick sense of how Mueller addresses the most pressing -- and mysterious -- issues raised during his investigation.

Read more here to see the five keywords Honig recommends.

Elie Honig is a former federal and state prosecutor and CNN legal analyst.

Pay attention to this footnote in Barr's letter

Less detailed attention is being paid to Barr's description of the results of the special counsel's investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian interference in the 2016 election. This includes attempts by the Russian Internet Research Agency "to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord," as well as "the Russian government's efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information" to influence the election. Yet, hiding in plain sight is a footnote in which Barr explains that he and Mueller are using a definition of coordination that requires proof of an agreement, which is contrary to the law and Federal Election Commission regulations and, more importantly, has been rejected by the Supreme Court. It is also a definition with which Americans should not feel comfortable.

Read more here to understand why this "footnote" is so important.

Larry Noble is the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission (1987-2000). He is currently a CNN contributor and has served as general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center and executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Before you read the Mueller report: five things to know about what the attorney general has said

... Barr faced relentless questions regarding his handling of the Mueller report at every turn, not to mention the Justice Department's handling of the Trump administration's attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act. And while he generally stayed cool under fire, he actually revealed quite a few new pieces of information about the national mystery surrounding his intentions with respect to the release of the Mueller report.

Read more here for a defense attorney's takeaways from Barr's statements about the report.

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