Two weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr issued a letter that characterized, in terms favorable to President Donald Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia investigation. Based on that letter and the ensuing Republican spin, the media reported that the investigation had largely cleared Trump. But what if these initial portrayals of Mueller’s report were misleading? What if Republicans fed the press and the public a pack of lies?
Until we see the report, we won’t know what’s in it. But we do know what Republicans have said about it, and eventually—unless it’s buried forever—we’ll be able to check these descriptions against the document. Here’s a catalog of what Trump and his surrogates have said since Barr’s letter came out. Some of these claims have been repeated uncritically by TV anchors, headline writers, and reporters. If the claims prove to be false, the media has a clear duty: to acknowledge that the report is more damning than we were told.
1. The report exonerates Trump. “The report is there,” White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney proclaimed in a CNN interview on March 31. “It completely exonerates the president.” Trump, the White House, and the Republican National Committee have used the same word. Vice President Mike Pence has twice called the report a “total vindication of the president.”
2. The report rules out collusion. According to the spin promulgated by Republicans and parroted by reporters, Mueller didn’t just fail to prove a conspiracy; he certified that no collusion took place. In a Fox News interview on March 24, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel attributed that verdict to the special counsel: “The Mueller report and the findings of this report that say there was no collusion.” The next day, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders concurred: “They were incredibly clear in the report that there was no collusion. Not just not by the president but by any American. No one on his team.”
At a press conference on March 25, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, assured the public, “The conclusion was firm, without equivocation, that no one on the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians.” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy added, “There has never been a more thorough, in-depth research that we’ve had from the American government. And without a shadow of doubt, it said no collusion.” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway put the same words in Mueller’s mouth: “That’s exactly what Director Mueller said: There is no collusion.”
3. There’s no evidence of collusion. According to the Trump camp, Mueller didn’t just debunk the collusion myth; he found it was completely unsupported. “The Mueller team came forward and said there is absolutely no evidence of collusion,” said McDaniel. Graham made the same assertion about the special counsel’s report: “Mr. Mueller said there was no evidence of collusion between President Trump or anybody on his campaign with the Russians, period.”
At a March 26 press conference, House Republican leaders called Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe to the microphone to deliver their summary of the report. “The special counsel did issue one clear indictment,” said Ratcliffe. “It’s an indictment of those folks who accused the president of conspiring or colluding with Russia.” As McCarthy, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney looked on, Ratcliffe averred that Mueller “didn’t just find insufficient evidence of collusion or conspiracy. He said there was no evidence. … The special counsel said there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy.”
4. There’s no circumstantial evidence. This is considered the weakest form of evidence. Even so, McCarthy says it’s been proved not to exist. Based on Mueller’s report, said the House Republican leader, “Those who said for more than two years that there was circumstantial evidence of collusion owe America [an] apology.”
5. Nobody talked with Russians. Speaking at the White House on March 26, Conway dismissed “the idea that any of us” in Trump’s campaign would “talk to Russians.” Five days later on Fox News, she said she had been vindicated by the investigation’s “ultimate conclusions of no conspiracy, no collusion, no contact with any Russian at a campaign that I managed.”
6. No American was involved in Russian interference. This is a broader claim than denying conspiracy or coordination. In a CNN interview on March 25, Sanders said the report “found that absolutely no American citizen, including the president, including everyone on his team, had anything to do with interfering in the election in 2016.”
7. No coordination was even attempted. In a statement issued on March 24, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that Mueller backed up this denial by Trump: “The Special Counsel’s conclusions confirm the President’s account that there was no effort by his campaign to conspire or coordinate with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.”
8. Trump and his associates never came close to accepting Russian help. On March 28, speaking on the House floor, Scalise noted that according to Barr’s letter, Mueller had documented “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” Scalise said the report showed that Trump and his associates “never even came close” to accepting these offers.
9. The campaign rebuffed Russian offers. On March 25, McCarthy said the report found that “Russians tried to get involved in the campaign. The Trump campaign said no.” On March 28, Scalise claimed that Mueller’s investigators “saw the Trump campaign pushing back at even offers for help.” Neither Scalise nor McCarthy specified the nature of the alleged pushback.
10. Mueller’s questions to Trump were immaterial. Late in the investigation, Mueller submitted written questions to Trump, and Trump responded with written answers. On March 25, a reporter asked Conway, “Why shouldn’t the country be able to see the president’s written responses?” Conway replied: “Because he was responding to questions that, it turns out, weren’t particularly relevant or important to anything.”
11. The report rules out obstruction of justice. On March 26, Trump said Mueller specifically cleared him of obstruction. “The Mueller report was great,” Trump told reporters. “It said, ‘No obstruction. No collusion.’ ” On March 31, Mulvaney backed up this assertion. The report “said exactly what the president said it would say,” Mulvaney told ABC News, “which was there was no collusion and no obstruction.”
12. The report found no obstructive conduct. This is a broader claim than denying obstruction of justice. On at least five occasions since Barr’s letter came out, Conway has asserted that the letter and the underlying report explicitly deny that Trump engaged in “obstructive conduct” or “obstructive activity.” The letter “said no obstructive activity,” Conway told reporters at the White House on March 25. “I read the quotes, ‘no obstructive conduct.’ ” On March 26, she added, “That’s exactly what Director Mueller said: There is no collusion, no obstructive conduct.”
13. The report found no attempts to interfere with the investigation. In a March 25 interview on PBS, Conway assured viewers, “The president didn’t try to interfere with the investigation. And that, of course, we know, is in the documentation: that nobody at Justice felt that Mr.
Mueller could not do his work.”
14. Mueller was unconstrained. In a statement on March 24, McCarthy said that Mueller was given “unfettered authority” to investigate Trump—and that this “allowed [Mueller’s] team to fully pursue any matters that arose.” Days later, on Fox News, McCarthy claimed that the investigation proved Trump’s innocence because “there was no stone unturned.” Mulvaney, citing Barr’s letter, insisted that Mueller “gave the president absolutely zero special treatment.”
15. Mueller saw no reason to interview Trump. Why didn’t Mueller get an interview with Trump? Because Mueller didn’t want one, says Conway. On March 25, she told reporters, “Apparently Mr. Mueller and Mr. Rosenstein saw no reason to subpoena the president. They had his answers to written questions … and they saw no reason to subpoena the president for testimony.”
16. Mueller decided the evidence of obstruction was insufficient. In a CNN interview on March 27, Graham summarized the special counsel’s conclusion: “He says, ‘I don’t have sufficient—I’m not comfortable with the fact pattern and the law to recommend to you that you should charge the president with obstruction.’ ”
17. Mueller asked Barr to decide whether Trump obstructed justice. At his March 25 press conference, Graham said Mueller gave Barr his proxy to resolve the obstruction question. “He decided—not Mr. Barr—to give that decision over to the attorney general,” Graham said. Sanders, in a CNN interview, claimed that investigators “sent that to the attorney general and the deputy attorney general to make that determination.”
18. Reports of Trump-Russia contacts were fake news. Last year, the New York Times and Washington Post won Pulitzers for 20 articles about Russia and the Trump campaign. Some of the articles addressed Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation, but most detailed Russian contacts with Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Jeff Sessions. On March 25, Conway and Sanders argued that Mueller’s findings debunked these reports. Conway said the investigation proved that “major papers in this country won Pulitzer prizes over their reporting on something that is totally fake.” Sanders said the Post and Times stories were based on “something that we found out to be a complete and utter lie.”
So that’s the list. Some of these claims about Mueller’s report—starting with the pretense of exoneration—conflict with Barr’s letter. Others conflict with one another. How, for example, can Mueller have cleared Trump of obstruction while simultaneously leaving that decision to Barr? Trump’s allies have also made further statements that seem far-fetched or absurd. A 19th claim, made at least eight times by Graham in the past two weeks, is that Mueller—who wasn’t appointed until May 2017—has been investigating Trump and Russia for “two and a half years.” A 20th claim, made by McCarthy, is that Mueller’s report vindicates Rep. Devin Nunes, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who alleged a deep-state conspiracy behind the investigation of Trump. At a press conference on March 28, McCarthy declared, “Devin Nunes was proven correct. That’s what the report says.”
Eventually, we’ll see the report, or at least the parts that aren’t redacted. It might show that some of these claims are true. But if they’re false—if Republicans lied about the report, and the media fell for those lies—then it will be time to talk less about exoneration and more about cover-up. The Barr letter and the blitz of spin around it could turn out to be another chapter in a Republican campaign to bury the truth.
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