Robert Mueller’s notorious and long-awaited report regarding the findings of potential Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election was recently finished and handed off to William Barr, the current United States Attorney General. It seems, however, a new battle over the public’s right to know the findings is afloat.
Barr, a Trump-appointee, is currently the only individual outside of the Special Counsel themselves with access to the full report. He states that a redacted version of the report will be made public and available to congress by mid-April. This has raised much criticism from the public and congress alike — why does the Trump administration get to redact the report to its liking? Could there not be a potential conflict of interest?
The Special Counsel investigation had a relatively narrow scope, and for this reason, opponents of Trump mistakenly speak of the investigation as if the investigation was into Trump himself. In actuality, unless Mueller’s investigation discovered a smoking gun that proves Trump was in cahoots with Russian entities to affect the election — which is not impossible given the fact that he met with Vladimir Putin five times in complete secrecy and seems to trust Russia more than his own intelligence bureaus — Trump will not be directly implemented in the report.
This has not stopped Trump from behaving as if he was, in fact, the target of the investigation. Within 48 hours of being handed the report that exceeds 300 pages, Barr released a four-page summary that states, “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”
Shortly after, Trump responded in a tweet: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”
Even brazen claims to exoneration were called into question. If the report, which theoretically did not incriminate Trump directly based on the scope of the investigation, did in fact exonerate Trump, why does it need to be redacted? And more importantly, why does it need to be redacted by the Trump administration? Of course, little information is made publicly available in regard to the contents of the report, but if there does happen to be something incriminating, accepting a redacted document from the accused party would be accepting a historically blatant cover-up.
There is also significant pressure on Mueller himself to appear impartial, which is why he is likely allowing congress to fight over the report. There are no legal measures in place preventing Mueller from discussing the report or even refuting statements made by the Trump administration, but as soon as he opens his mouth, the power of the report is lost and instead the discourse of the investigation would become a game of he-said he-said — a game that Trump, admittedly, wins more often than not.
Democrats in congress are also unsatisfied by the summary of Mueller’s report. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Barr’s summary of the report “condescending” and “arrogant,” and went on record saying that democrats need to draw their own conclusions from the report. Six different house committees have demanded the full report by Tuesday, April 2, and said that they might subpoena Mueller himself if it is not delivered to them.
At this point in time, regardless of the findings of the report, we as citizens must rally behind the right to know what the Special Counsel’s findings were. Conceding to lame excuses such as “confidentiality” repeated by bureaucratic Trump administrators would be an incredible disservice to American democracy.
At least it seems that democratic members of congress are skeptical of Barr’s summary of the report and his decision to redact information before passing the contents on — but is skepticism enough? What if Barr misses the April 2 deadline imposed by congress? It will all come down to congress’s will to hold the responsible parties accountable, which they arguably have a poor track record for.
Republicans have the upper edge in today’s political climate. If democrats in congress fail to hold political actors responsible for their actions, they fail at their jobs and American democracy will slowly crumple at the will of a powerful political minority. But if democratic congress members do take action, they are subject to complaints that they were acting in partisan interests — a relatively empty sentiment, but nonetheless potentially damaging to democratic candidates of the 2020 elections.
Democrats have mostly taken the “high road,” presenting themselves as neutrally as possible in regard to holding political elites accountable while performing their legislative tasks. But unsatisfactory track records and failures to put their foot down beg the question, is the high road the road we should be on? There’s always something to be said for professionalism, but when professionalism takes the back-burner to shameless misinformed attacks on civil discourse and partisan ulterior motives, is it not a good time to fight back?
Political norms have been utterly destroyed over the past few years, and part of what makes it so concerning is the fact that long-established norms are very different from laws — for example, the President of the United States referring to a porn star on Twitter as “horseface” is unprecedented and disrespectful, but does not break any official laws. Mitch McConnell shutting down senate votes that were passed through the house unanimously is also in his legal power, no matter how diabolical his intentions appear.
Perhaps lawmakers never imagined a situation in which a president or his administration would break these norms and never bothered writing them into law — but regardless of why certain actions are legal, society as a whole must consider why these things are legal and respond to these behaviors accordingly. Gaining political advantage through actions that are extremely questionable, but technically not illegal, still warrants consequence on behalf of the governed.
As previous precedence is broken, new precedence is set. If congress fails to hold responsible parties accountable, it will not only remain legal, but remain normal to attack celebrities on Twitter, to have secret meetings with adverse nations, to cover up information in the public’s interest, to intentionally spread misinformation and attack the media. It is no easy task, but a perfect place to start would be releasing the full, unredacted Mueller report to congress so they may make judgments and come to a consensus on what information, if any, needs to be redacted for the public. Any other action would be unacceptable.