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james debate

Saturday, 20 April 2019

It is another historic and deeply disturbing day in America. Two weeks ago I provided my analysis of Attorney General Bill Bar's summary of the long awaited Special Counsel report on the Trump Campaign's Russian connections and associated alleged criminality. Team Trump had tried to frame this event as a game-changer, "total exoneration", case closed. But in truth Barr's handling of the report did little to bring closure to the country, and with good reason. Today we can put much of that lingering ambiguity to rest, the actual Mueller Report has been released, albeit with some redactions.

Let's be clear, as there is a lot of misinformation out there. The Mueller Report is absolutely unequivocal: The Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

trump russia mueller report investigation criminal indictment obstruction barr collusion putin rosenstein

The findings of the Mueller Report
"Oh My God... This Is the End of My Presidency. I'm Fucked" - President Donald J Trump upon learning that a Special Counsel had been appointed to investigate his campaign.

We have long speculated as to the form the Mueller Report would take, but the time for speculation is now over. The redacted report can be found online at https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf, and it is damning. I encourage everybody to have a look and read it for themselves. Do not just take my word or anyone else's for granted. Read the facts and make your own judgement. The final document is divided into two volumes.

The first paints a picture of a campaign that is, frankly, lousy with Russian connections. Dozens of Trump associates taking hundreds of meetings and communications with members of the Russian Government. Personal, political and business connections. The report lays out evidence of a campaign that was in near constant communication with the Kremlin, which was the subject of numerous overtures with regards to conspiring to influence a Federal election, and which frequently held itself out as completely receptive to those overtures. Mueller concluded that there was insufficient evidence to make a criminal case for any of this activity, but caveated this conclusion with the clear assertion that the obstructive behaviour carried out by Trump's associates had a material impact on that fact. These obstructive actions were, of course, themselves crimes, and some 40 persons have been indicted with 200 criminal charges between them.

Let's not mince words, this is collusion. Mueller's findings reveal a vast web of co-ordination and quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The Trump campaign knew that Russia were helping them win the election, and in turn made numerous and frequent assertions to the Kremlin that they would implement favourable policies, particularly with regards to Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions. The bottom line is this: Donald Trump knew the Russians were attacking America and said nothing because he knew they were helping him. This may not be a crime, but it is certainly unethical and disqualifying for office.

And it goes beyond this. The "fake dossier", that alleged Trump was compromised by the Russians, that Trump and his fanatics have spent so long deriding is corroborated on a number of details here. The Mueller report reveals for the first time that the Russians threatened Trump with "compromising tapes". The Mueller report reveals that Manafort assured his fellow indictees that Trump would pardon them all if they stayed loyal. Senator Richard Burr is shown to have been leaking evidence from the Senate investigation to the White House. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders admitted to Mueller that she lied to the public on numerous occasions. Mueller confirms that Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort shared polling data with the Russian Government, and adjusted campaign strategy accordingly.

There are so... many... details like this. The story being told here is of far more than just collusion. It's a full accounting of a regime that is so fully compromised, so rotten to the core, so totally bereft of morals. All of this behaviour is wrong. It's all inappropriate, it's all unethical, and it's all blatantly unpatriotic. This is corruption at the very highest level, a revelation of just how murky the Trump swamp truly is. The trouble is that this collusion is not necessarily criminal, and where it may have been criminal ended up being too difficult to prove.

Let's also be clear about this. Many of the Trump campaign's interactions were explicitly identified as potentially criminal. Mueller's report methodically examines each instance and explains why criminal charges were or were not pursued. Many of these incidents only avoided prosecution by the skin of their teeth. The report explicitly states that a key reason for the lack of prosecution on collusion is due to obstructive efforts staged by Trump's various associates, many of which themselves led to prosecution.

But it's the second volume of this report that is the most damning. This is the volume which deals with whether or not the President committed criminal obstruction of justice. In this case Mueller declines to make a prosecutorial judgement (more later on why), but rather lays out the evidence in meticulous detail and defers the question for further consideration.

We already knew many of the key events from media reporting, but Mueller provides new details that suggest Trump really was behaving in nefarious ways - deciding to fire Comey but then asking Rosenstein to say he came up with the idea, and asking Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself specifically to end parts of the investigation. In other instances, Trump's obstructive efforts appear only to have failed because members of his team talked him out of it, or flat out refused to follow orders. Perhaps the single most striking part of the report is how directly and plainly Robert Mueller states that Trump intended to hamper the investigation.

There are a few other key points to note with respect to Mueller's obstruction findings:

  1. Mueller clearly and explicitly recommended the question be resolved by Congress, not the Department of Justice. On no fewer than four occasions Mueller stated in no uncertain terms that Congress has the authority over this matter;
  2. Mueller explicitly declined to make a conclusion due in large part to the the Department of Justice policy on not indicting a sitting President;
  3. Mueller explicitly states that the President may be indicted upon leaving office;
  4. Mueller was so comfortable that he had all the evidence needed for an obstruction charge that he declined to subpoena the President, as he felt it was not needed in order to prove mens rea;
  5. Mueller explicitly states that he believes a thorough FBI investigation would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal intent on the part of the President.
In Robert Mueller's own words: "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgement."

The Trump Administration has spent the last several weeks spinning the lack of an obstruction indictment as an indication that the matter was inconclusive. But a reading of the actual findings show this clearly not to be true. Mueller makes abundantly clear that he chose not to make a prosecutorial judgement due to the unusual circumstances of the case, in particular the DOJ/OLC rules on indicting a sitting President. He also makes clear that there is a case to be heard, and that Congress, not the DOJ, has the authority to conclude that case. There is a real case to obstruction, and Mueller in effect has laid out a road-map to investigation and probably impeachment for Congress to follow.

Bill Barr can no longer credibly lead the DOJ
While the report his highly damning on the President and campaign, equally disturbing is what it reveals about the conduct of the Attorney General of the United States Bill Barr. While the Attorney General is a political appointee, it is historically a role that the holder seeks to perform apolitically for obvious reasons. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Mueller Report is the extent to which it makes clear that Barr has not been conducting himself in such a way.

If the country was skeptical of Barr's initial summary, it was downright alarmed by his behaviour since then. During his Congressional testimony he parroted the President's much derided conspiracy theories about being "spied" on (numerous courts have already ruled that investigators did nothing inappropriate) and blaming a conspiracy of media witch hunts and "illegal" leaks. It is impossible to interpret Barr's press conference on the day of the release of the report, in which he did little but regurgitate his previous summary and storm out under difficult questioning, as anything other than a political PR stunt. Such brazenly political conduct from the nation's top law enforcement official is unbecoming of his office, but following the release of the Mueller Report his behaviour appears even more insidious and disturbing.

There are a number of stark and material differences between Barr's summary and subsequent comments on the Mueller Report and the actual findings of that report. Most significantly, Barr claimed that Mueller's refusal to prosecute on obstruction was due to a lack of evidence, and not because of the rules regarding indictment of a sitting President. Mueller explicitly contradicts this, stating in no uncertain terms that a core reason for not making a prosecutorial judgement is the OLC policy. Barr also claimed that Mueller did not indicate any preference for Congress to take up the obstruction question. Even putting aside the patent absurdity that the Special Counsel, appointed specifically to allay concerns that the DOJ would not investigate itself objectively, would defer back to that very DOJ, Mueller makes clear on numerous occasions that Congress does have authority in this matter. Perhaps most significant is Barr's declaration that Mueller concluded that Trump would shielded from facing obstruction charges upon leaving office, something which is expressly refuted in the report.

Some of the discrepancies can be charitably described as misleading or partial descriptions, but other statements were flat out false, and provably so. Was Barr lying about the contents of the report? At a minimum it is clear that he sought to misrepresent Robert Mueller's findings, and when combined with his hagiographic press conference and constant use of propagandistic non-legal language it paints a very worrying image of a Justice Department that has been politicised far beyond anything this country has seen before.

More to the point, one of the reasons the Mueller Report looks so damning is because of how unfavourably it compares to Barr's summary. While it is undoubtedly bad, it arguably would not have seemed too catastrophic some two months ago against the pre-Barr summary expectations. Barr's clumsy attempts at spin instead served to lower expectations, and may ironically have made the actual report seem even worse than it might have done.


A vindication for the media
So the report looks pretty bad for just about everyone involved, but there are some clear winners, not least of all in the media.

For years we have heard this terrifying populist spiel about how the media are "fake news" and "the enemy of the people". Dangerous, dishonest rhetoric designed to poison the public against the legitimate and independent fourth estate so as to blunt its ability to shed light on corruption. Now that we have the Mueller Report, one of the most striking realisations is just how accurate a lot of the reporting has been.

The report has corroborated numerous incidents that the administration had dismissed as fake news, and really there were surprisingly few revelations that had not at least been discussed in the media. There is absolutely no doubt about it, this was a huge vindication for the media.

At the risk of sounding awfully self-serving, it is also something of a vindication for myself and this blog. Look again through my write-up of the Barr summary, and it's striking just how much of what I wrote has in fact been borne out in the actual fact of the Mueller Report. I know some people took exception with my analysis on the basis that it did not coincide with the messaging their chosen team was trying to put out, so hopefully this can serve as an important reminder to all of us to follow fact and evidence rather than trying to make something as fundamental as the rule of law into a partisan contest.

What happens next?
This is a historic moment in this country. There is so much in this report that is of significance.

Even aside from the headline findings, all the unexplained Russia connections, the fact that the President may have criminally obstructed justice. There is also the apparent confirmation that Russia attempted to manipulate the President by threatening him with compromising materials. It's been bizarrely overlooked in comparison to the potential criminality, but even the fact that the report has documented admission from the Trump administration that they just lie to the public continually. There is so much in this report that portrays this administration in a devastating light.

The report is also quite clear on what should happen next. Robert Mueller referred some 14 investigations to other teams in the Justice Department, and the vast majority of the Mueller Report's redactions appear to concern ongoing matters. The redactions appear to have predominantly been made to sections concerning Wikileaks and the election hacking portions of the report. In addition there are a number of notable absentees from the "why we declined to prosecute" section like Jerome Corsi, Carter Page plus others. You can make what you will of that, but it implies that a number of the concerned individuals may either be cooperating with or the target of ongoing investigations.

Most significantly, the report makes clear that Congress alone has the authority to continue and conclude on the question of obstruction of justice. As holders of the majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party now has a constitutional obligation to see this through. The Democrats should initiate hearings on obstruction of justice immediately and subpoena all necessary evidence. Depending on where that leads, they should then consider the question of impeachment. There is absolutely no ambiguity that this is what SHOULD happen, but the truth is it is very unlikely.

The reality is that Donald Trump is up for reelection next year. He has abysmal approval ratings and this report will not have done him any favours. The Democrats have zero political incentive to impeach him, rather they have every incentive to let him keep doing what he's doing, and use his unpopularity to drive another election victory in 2020. The Democrats are highly unlikely to impeach Trump unless something comes along that is so dramatic it is impossible to ignore.

I want to be clear on this. These are political considerations, and I do not support this approach. In my view the rule of law is paramount, and if Trump did commit a crime then Democrats are obligated to provide oversight and enforce those laws. If they fail to do so then I would consider that a damning indictment on the Democrats' ability to govern seriously. If Trump did commit a crime then he needs to be made an example of, if for no other reason than to show the country that we are a nation of law. Allowing him to finish his term and lose at the ballot box would be tantamount to normalising unacceptable conduct, and sets a terrible precedent that the law only applies selectively.

For everyone else that is reading the Mueller Report and this article, I think there is one key take away that I would stress above everything else. We now have the facts before us in print, there is no longer any ambiguity. It is time for all of us, Democrat, Republican, and myself included, to put aside the silly political gamesmanship and biases and face reality.

It is far past the time where anyone can credibly say with a straight face that this is all some kind of hoax or political stunt. It is far past time where anyone can claim that nothing happened and this is all just business as usual. This all really happened. This is a damning report, illustrating a web of widespread and ongoing misconduct in Government. And you know what? It's a Republican this time, but once one party gets away with it, the other party will just do the same. None of us should find this acceptable.








Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Directed by Lynette Linton
Written by Lynn Nottage
Starring Stuart McQuarrie, Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins
Theatre Donmar

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This blog recently reviewed Shipwreck, and commented that it was a perfect example of how not to write political theatre. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sweat.

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play forms a timely and nuanced account of life among America's "forgotten people", in impoverished rust-belt country. Based on a series of extensive interviews with real life factory workers, Sweat gives us a stunningly real insight at economic displacement, the loss of blue collar jobs, and a fear of immigration and trade.

The production is wonderfully brought to life by director Lynette Linton. The set is atmospheric and the performances without fault. McQuarrie and Plimpton are utterly spellbinding.

So why does Sweat work so well? Ultimately the answer is that the story comes first, and is not merely a vehicle for a political lecture. This is a story that would be worth telling in any age, gripping in and of itself. The political viewpoint is neither agenda driven nor laid on too thick, just purely insightful, and all the more powerful for its honesty.

The characters are well written and feel like real people. They don't talk like caricatures or condescending mouthpieces for the author. The story that you see here rings true, and even if it is not strictly based on actual events it undoubtedly gets to the core of a very real situation. While the play wisely never mentions Trump by name, this tale nevertheless makes for essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand his appeal, or the desperation which has motivated many to buy into his rhetoric. That this play was written in 2015 only serves to make its words more prescient. It's rare that a play finds me speechless at final curtain, and I really can't recall the last time theatre has left me with such an impression.

I saw this production at the Donmar this spring, but Sweat will now transfer to the Gielgud starting June. For anyone who has not yet seen it, I can not recommend it highly enough.











Sunday, 14 April 2019

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Anne Washburn
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Fisayo Akinade, Raquel Cassidy, Adam James
Theatre Almeida

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Anne Washburn is proving to be somewhat hit or miss as a playwright, and sometimes both in the same play.

Washburn's playwriting style is essentially the anti-Stanislavski (the pioneer of naturalism), with stories that are not intended to be taken as a depiction of actual events, but an exploration of concepts, and characters that are not intended to represent real people, but act as mouthpieces for the various points of view she wishes to explore. It makes for theatre that can be as intellectually provocative to critics and drama students, as it is grating and stilted for regular patrons.

This was very much the case with a recent play of Washburn's, Mr Burns. The concept here was a post-apocalyptic world in which stories and bits of pop culture become valued commodities traded between communities. As a high level concept it's not bad, but the way in which Washburn wrote it was so grating; long, drawn out scenes of the most boring and repetitive dialogue, like that one friend of yours who always repeats the same joke from a TV show until it stops being funny. Her new play Shipwreck is written in much the same way.

Shipwreck ostensibly follows two separate narrative strands: one in which a group of friends make a retreat to a remote cabin, and become embroiled in the world's most tedious political discussions; the other a series of monologues which explore the struggles of an American midwestern couple raising a refugee child. The latter of these two strands is actually competently written and does lead somewhere satisfying in the end, however it composes probably no more than 10% of the production, with most of the rest being dedicated to the former.

Don't get me wrong, politics in 2016 is a topic that is ripe for source material, and many plays have attempted politics and pulled it off successfully. Shipwreck contrasts these efforts as a golden example of how not to do political theatre.

These scenes in the cabin invariably feature some (and I say this as someone vehemently anti-Trumpist) pompous jackass regaling everyone with the latest Trump outrage that they heard on the news ("Can you believe how much Trump lies?!", "Have you heard how he fired Comey?!"). There is no subtlety here, as with a play like Albion. It's literally just a group of stilted mouthpieces for the author repeating Rachel Maddow zingers, and ranting at the audience as if the author feels some need to edify the ignorant masses.

The main problem here is twofold: Firstly, there is no story or point to these scenes that justifies what we're watching. Most of us go to the theatre to see a story or some worthwhile artistic expression, not just some person's Twitter thread adapted to script. Secondly, the writer has nothing particularly insightful or interesting to say beyond simply "Trump is awful, why aren't you angry?!" (and again, I say this as a notably outspoken critic of his regime). The references in the dialogue are banal and superficial, and yet they are dissected at an excruciatingly glacial pace with all the smugness of someone who is under some misapprehension that they are privy to some great wisdom that they must impart to the rest of us.

The result is that anyone who is knowledgeable about politics will find  this all trite and laboured, and anyone who is not will find it condescending. If Washburn is legitimately trying to edify her audience, then she is nowhere near as clever or insightful as she thinks. If she is ironically trying to show how annoying people are when they talk politics, then well done, but either way it doesn't make good theatre.

The saving grace of Mr Burns was its final act, in which all the hitherto superficially explored themes were brought together in a dazzling and visually striking setpiece which saw a classic Simpsons skit reinterpreted as some horror thriller, complete with a Greek chorus, full band, and incorporating elements and details from all manner of different pop culture sources. It certainly didn't justify sitting through three hours of tedium, but it showed that Washburn is capable of some truly original, visionary work. Shipwreck pulls the same trick with two spectacular scenes, one at the end of each act and for which I have awarded this play one star each.

The first expands on one of the Trump lies that forms the focus of much of the first act, that he was some firebrand anti-war activist fighting tooth and nail against the Bush administration to prevent the Iraq war. What follows is a depiction of a dashing, young and idealistic Trump (reinterpreted as some Tony Stark-esque figure) whose power and popularity so threatens the establishment that then President Bush visits him in Trump tower and begs him to back down. A hilariously schlocky battle of wits ensues, resulting in a slow motion bare knuckle mano-a-mano for the soul of the country. It's well-staged, tightly written, and hilarious.

The second of these scenes imagines the now infamous meeting with James Comey in which Trump asked then FBI Director Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him. Here, Trump is reimagined as some mad Aztec God-Emperor, prancing about the stage in absurd looking robes and headdress, while he is flanked by ghoulish masked cultists who obey his every whim. It's an astonishing bit of theatre, and actually one of the better analogies I have yet seen for this administration.

And so we end with his paradox of a playwright. Someone who is clearly capable of breathtaking vision and finely honed writing, and who nevertheless pads her plays with 90% pure tedious dreck. I suspect that the answer is that this is a play intended more for critics and students to analyse than for anyone to actually go and enjoy. The best plays manage to be both.











Monday, 1 April 2019

Well it finally happened. The Office of the Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III has completed his investigation into alleged connections between the Russian government and the Presidential campaign of then candidate Donald Trump. To call this a seismic event would be an understatement. This is easily the most significant Federal investigation into a President's conduct since Watergate, and concerns charges that if proven would be unlike anything seen before in American politics.

Sadly, as with pretty much everything else that has happened under this administration, this story has been spun, obfuscated, and just generally muddied up to the point where practically no one can tell what is actually going on, least of all those in the media upon whom falls the responsibility of informing the public. So for those of you who are rightly confused at this time I have compiled the following analysis, which hopefully will provide an easy to understand summary of what has happened, what it means going forward, and with a little of my own perspective as a lawyer thrown in for good measure.

trump russia mueller report investigation criminal indictment obstruction barr collusion putin rosenstein

The Mueller Investigation
Before we dive into the findings of the investigation, I think it's important to provide a quick summary.

The Special Counsel investigation was initiated in May 2017 by Rod Rosenstein, the Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Comey accused Trump of firing him after he had refused to stop an FBI investigation into Trump's national security advisor Michael Flynn, a claim which was inadvertently lent extra credence by Trump himself, who stated on national TV that he had fired Comey to end "the Russia thing".

Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to find the answer to two questions: 1) whether there is credible evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly aided or co-ordinated with the Russian Government to influence the 2016 election, and 2) whether Donald Trump's conduct in office might constitute obstruction of justice.

The President has called the investigation a "witch hunt", but over the course of two years Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" has found an awful lot of witches, indicting some 40 people, with a total of 200 criminal charges. This includes almost a dozen members of Donald Trump's inner circle, including his Campaign Chairman, his personal attorney, his chief national security advisor, amongst several others. This makes it the second largest Special Counsel investigation in history in terms of indictments, behind only Watergate. This is in spite of it being among the shortest such investigations. A lot of criminals have been put behind bars by this investigation. It has been an unmitigated success in this regard.

In addition, Mueller's investigation has led to the spin off of as many as seventeen investigations being carried out by different departments. Mueller's initial investigatory phase may be complete, but these investigations continue.

Key findings and conclusions
Summarising the key findings of this much anticipated investigation is difficult because, well, we don't really know what the investigation found. Despite the investigation being complete, and the full 400 page report being delivered to the Attorney General, no one outside of his office has seen a single word.

Instead, all we have to go on is a description put out by the Trump administration itself. That alone should set off alarm bells. After all, in what other situation would the subject of an investigation be permitted to write up the conclusions of that investigation? Donald Trump's new Attorney General Bill Barr, who replaced Jeff Sessions ostensibly just so he could take control of this investigation, has provided a four page summary to Congress. In Barr's own words, the report "does not exonerate" the President.

The Barr Summary states that the Mueller Investigation concluded that the Russian Government did indeed interfere in our election in order to elect Donald Trump, but that Mueller was not able to "establish" that members of the Trump campaign actually co-ordinated with the Russians in support of this interference. The summary states that Mueller found numerous instances in which the Russians had attempted to work with the Trump campaign, but that it does not establish that the campaign ultimately did so, at least not in a way that meets the threshold of criminality.

On the second charge, Mueller's findings were far more alarming. The Barr Summary states that Mueller concluded that the President's conduct may have amounted to criminal obstruction of justice. The Special Counsel laid out the evidence for and against this charge, and then declined to draw a final conclusion, deferring the matter for further consideration. The Trump Administration then took it upon itself to decline further consideration, and conclude a lack of criminality. If the previous thing set off alarm bells, this one should have steam shooting out of your ears.

And now for a few of my own impressions and outstanding questions on this developing story:

1. No collusion? No conclusion
First of all let's be clear what we are talking about when it comes to "collusion". Collusion is not a criminal charge, and in the context of Donald Trump that word has been used to describe all manner of activity with the Russian Government. In the context of the Mueller investigation, that word has a much narrower meaning.

Robert Mueller, it has now been revealed by the Barr Summary, was looking very specifically into whether members of the Trump campaign co-ordinated with the Russian Government to illegally interfere in the 2016 election. Thus it is clearly erroneous to try and draw any conclusion over the broader question on Trump-Russian relations based on what Mueller has found. That being said, we know that Mueller has referred many cases to other investigators, and it is entirely possible that these may include other forms of collusion.

We also don't know precisely what the Mueller investigation found with respect to this very specific form of collusion. The Barr Summary states that the investigation "did not establish" that members of the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election, but it's not clear whether this is Mueller's conclusion, or just Barr's interpretation of his findings. Based on how the obstruction question was handled (ie Mueller just laid out the evidence and Barr made a judgement) one can reasonably assume that these may be Barr's own words, in which case the question is still very much open.

Even if we give Barr the benefit of the doubt and assume his conclusions accurately correspond to Mueller's own conclusions, as a lawyer I find his choice of words interesting. It is significant that Barr did not say "found no evidence of" but rather "did not establish that". This is very specific and careful language which clearly implies that there is in fact some evidence of this collusion, just not enough to rise to the standard of criminal prosecution (ie beyond a reasonable doubt).

To be clear: "collusion" doesn't necessarily mean there is a crime. There is no reasonable question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. We already know from court filings that prosecutors believe there to have been collusion between Russia and at least some members of the Trump campaign (see Manafort providing polling data, Trump Jr's meeting, Roger Stone's Wikileaks contacts). The question is how much of this activity was actually criminal, and in the context of the Mueller investigation, specifically how much of this activity sought to criminally interfere in the 2016 election.

Based on what little we know of the investigation's findings, it appears that sufficient evidence has not been found to bring criminal charges in this specific area of collusion, although it would probably be premature to reach that conclusion until independent eyes have seen the underlying findings. It would certainly be premature to conclude that all forms of criminal collusion have been ruled out, and flat out delusional to conclude that collusion of any sort between members of the Trump campaign and Russian Government has been effectively ruled out.

2. On obstruction, the investigation must continue 
Even by the Trump Administration's own words, Mueller explicitly did not exonerate the President on this issue. Rather, the report apparently lays out the evidence on both sides, and concludes that the matter is close enough that the Special Counsel did not feel it within his remit to make so determinative a judgement. According to the Barr summary, the Special Counsel declined to conclude on obstruction, and suggested that further consideration was required.

Let's be clear. From a legal perspective, this is by far the most significant detail revealed in the Barr Summary. It has been frustrating to see the media obsess over the collusion question (itself potentially left ambiguous as discussed above) while completely ignoring the actual conclusion that the President may have committed serious criminal offences.

Two things to say about this. First, when so serious a criminal charge has been left unresolved, it is obviously wrong for the Trump Administration to legally exonerate itself. This is an absurd situation. No matter what your political beliefs or ideology, clearly the accused should not have the power to be their own judge and jury. If this question has been left open, it must be concluded by an independent body, by Congress, or both.

Secondly, even if an appropriate body does take this matter into further consideration and rules a lack of criminality, the very fact that it can't be ruled out is still significant. The standard for criminal indictment is beyond a reasonable doubt. If your threshold is 95% certainty, and you conclude that the matter is borderline, that's still pretty alarming.

3. The Mueller investigation appears to be much narrower in scope than expected
If we can divine one new revelation about the Mueller investigation from Barr's summary, it is that it was clearly far more narrow in scope than people might have realised or hoped.

The investigation has been notable for its opacity and complete radio silence. At no point has it even been clear precisely what Mueller was investigating. Inevitably, this has led to great speculation.

There have been a great many allegations of Trump-Russia connections in the media since the start of this Presidency. Allegations of kompromat, the Don Jr Trump Tower meeting, decades of shady business dealings, the perjury charges over Trump Tower Moscow, to name just a few.

A lot of people had expected, perhaps out of hope, that the Mueller investigation would cast a blinding spotlight onto all of this activity. The revelation that Mueller was, ostensibly, only looking into one small aspect of this relationship will be a disappointment to many, and the answer to these burning questions appears no clearer in its wake.

4. Mueller is done, but the investigation continues
Fortunately, the apparent narrowness of the Mueller Report does not necessarily mean that these questions have been ignored, or are not being addressed elsewhere.

The Barr Summary makes clear that Mueller has referred many open threads to other investigators. It is reasonable to assume that many of the unresolved issues, for example Don Jr's meeting and the as yet un-indicted allegation that Manafort provided RNC data to the Russians (as stated in Mueller's court filings), may still be under investigation by other departments. There were already as many as seventeen known ongoing investigations, but following the conclusion of Mueller's evidence gathering operation, it is likely there could be dozens that remain open.

Indeed, while the Mueller investigation may be in the process of handing off cases to other investigators, and does not expect to make further indictments, this does not mean the Special Counsel's work is complete. After all, there are still ongoing court proceedings to be handled. Even this week, after the investigation apparently wrapped up, the Mueller Grand Jury was said to still be continuing robustly.

So if it was not obvious before, it is now quite clear that the Mueller report represents only the opening phase of this investigation.

5. Did Trump fire Mueller?
One question which has been surprisingly overlooked is whether the Mueller investigation had, in fact, run its course, or whether the Trump Administration forced it to end prematurely.

We already know that Trump has tried, or at least considered whether to fire Mueller in the past. He very publicly criticised his previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not being able to step in and shut down the investigation, and declared his own Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein a traitor. Ultimately, Trump did fire Sessions, and appointed Barr in his place. Within days, the Mueller investigation was brought to an end.

It seems difficult to come up with any other explanation for why the investigation would end when, by the Barr Summary's own words, a final conclusion had not yet been reached. It is even stranger that the investigation would willingly wrap up while court proceedings are still pending, or while the Special Counsel is as we speak fighting in the Supreme Court for a subpoena against a mystery foreign company. As recently as just two weeks ago, Mueller asked for an extension for sentencing Rick Gates due to the fact that he was still assisting the Mueller investigation, and the same has been done for Michael Flynn. Barely a week before submitting his report, Robert Mueller requested additional funding.

This begs the obvious question: if the Mueller's investigation was close to completion, then what were Gates and Flynn still cooperating on? If Mueller is still collecting evidence from this mystery company, then how can they declare now that there will be no further indictments? These very recent actions seem to suggest quite strongly that Mueller was expecting to continue his investigation for the foreseeable future, so what changed?

This is all highly suggestive of an investigation being rushed to a conclusion. People had reasonably speculated that Sessions was fired and replaced specifically to bring about an end to the investigation, and ostensibly that is exactly what has happened.

6. This is not the first time Trump has wrongly claimed exoneration
The Trump administration has been predictably direct in its response. "Total exoneration", "case closed". In Trump's view, the end of this investigation means that all other ongoing investigations must end, and all those in Government and the media who investigated him must themselves be investigated and locked up.

A few things here. First, the fact that a sitting President would even dream of suggesting using the Department of Justice for revenge and political imprisonment is grotesquely corrupt. It's the sort of thing that would have been unthinkable in America a few years ago. The fact that a politician can propose such a thing and not be forced out of office the next day is a shocking reminder of how far this country has fallen in recent years, and a warning of just how easily democracy can shift toward authoritarianism and lawlessness.

Second, quite why Trump chose the one word that the Barr Summary explicitly states that the report does not do (exonerate) is a baffling mystery, and only serves to exacerbate doubt as to the veracity of his statement.

But the key point to note here, is just how meaningless such a statement is. After all, this administration has claimed exoneration at every step of this investigation, regardless of what the facts have shown. This is, after all, a President who when his personal lawyer testified under oath that the President directed him to break the law, tweeted: "Totally clears the President!". This administration has constantly attempted to dismiss the ongoing criminal investigations through obfuscation and noise, and this situation is no different. This is simply another attempt by the administration to confuse and mislead, and much like the story of the Boy who Cried Wolf, at a certain point you just stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

7. Is Bill Barr covering for Trump?
Let's not beat around the bush. The timing of this whole thing is highly suspicious. Trump spent months attacking his own Justice Department for not shutting down the Mueller investigation. He ostensibly fired Jeff Sessions for this reason, and appointed Bill Barr as his replacement. Almost immediately after that appointment, the Mueller investigation ended.

The administration's actions since have done little to allay these suspicions. The fact that Barr has so far refused to release the underlying report, as well as the flagrantly dishonest narrative coming out of the White House, have only served to sow further doubt in the minds of the public.

If the intention was to close the case and let the American people move on, they are going about it entirely the wrong way.

8. The Barr Summary might be both accurate and a cover up
One possibility that should not be discounted at this point is the idea that the Barr Summary can be both entirely accurate, and still a cover up.

From what we know, it seems the Mueller investigation has conducted a comprehensive investigation of Trump's connections with Russia. It is entirely plausible that Mueller's report may contain findings which, while not necessarily criminal, are politically embarrassing to Trump. For example if Mueller's report shows that Trump is financially indebted to the Kremlin, as he is alleged to be, that might not be a crime in itself but it would clearly be significant, and would hurt him politically. It may also convince suspicious Americans that he is, in fact, guilty of a crime, even if the investigation did not find enough evidence to formally charge him.

Bill Barr's recent letter to Congress seems to indicate that this may be the case, stating that the longer summary awaiting release will be redacted to remove embarrassing information.

This raises a tricky question. In such situations Justice Department protocol rightly states that the privacy of persons not charged with a crime must be protected. After all, if an investigation does not charge someone with a crime, releasing details of that investigation could nevertheless prejudice the public against that person and harm their reputation. There are, of course, allowances for deviation from this policy where it serves the public interest.

The question then becomes, if the investigation found that Trump is politically or economically compromised, should that fact be disclosed to the public, or is Trump entitled to keep all non-criminal dirt a secret? This is tricky ethical and legal ground without an obvious answer. Does the President have a legal right to lie to the American people so long as it is not criminal, and is the Justice Department obligated to protect that right? It may be that the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean that it is morally correct.

9. What should happen next?
Whatever the findings may be, and whether not this has happened appropriately or illicitly, it is clear that this first phase of the investigation is complete. The question now is what next?

In an ideal world where justice is carried out without political bias and where Government functions as it should, the next steps are obvious. The open question of obstruction would be taken up by Congress, as recommended by the Special Counsel, and brought to conclusion one way or another. This entire situation makes abundantly clear just how important it is to have independent oversight over our leaders, if for no other reason that to afford Americans the peace of mind that they are not being deceived. Sadly we do not live in that world, and it seems likely that this matter will be never be resolved apolitically.

The Trump Administration is clearly trying to use the Barr Summary draw a line under, not only this investigation, but all ongoing investigations. It also seems disturbingly likely that Trump will use the prospect of "revenge" investigations and political indictments as a core part of his 2020 campaign.

At this point, there is only one thing that seems capable of bringing this matter to a definitive end: releasing the full Mueller findings to Congress, and letting them do their job and provide appropriate oversight. Clearly some people will have concerns about whether the Democrats in charge of Congress will do this without political bias, but the whole point of referring the matter to Congress is that it will be public and transparent. That way, if the Democrats do behave inappropriately, people will be able to see it. For any concern that one might have with Congressional oversight, this is clearly a better situation than the current one, where the accused has exonerated itself and hidden all underlying evidence and findings.

This last point seems to be the key takeaway going forward. Whatever the investigation has found, the Trump Administration's handling of it's conclusion carries the clear whiff of corruption and cover up. This appears to have been the conclusion of the American people as well. A clear majority say that Trump has not been exonerated, while barely a third believe that he has been. An astonishing 75%, including a clear majority of Republicans, want the Mueller Report to be released in full. On top of this, Trump's approval ratings have barely budged, and YouGov even showed a slight dip this week.

Whether fair or unfair, it is clear that the public has not been convinced by the Barr Summary. People want transparency, and so far this administration has refused that. They want justice to be independent and apolitical, and yet currently the administration appears to be content to exonerate itself without external scrutiny. This impression may yet turn out to be undeserved or unfair, but the administration has only itself to blame when it acts without transparency or independence in this way.








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