Without Mueller details, questions remain on Russia

Professors from Penn Law and the School of Arts and Sciences react to what we know—and what’s still unanswered.

The White House

After months of anticipation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to the U.S. Department of Justice March 22. Two days later, Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary that addressed two points. 

The first: that Russia made significant attempts to influence the outcome, but Mueller’s report “did not find” the Trump campaign had conspired or coordinated with the Russians. The second: Mueller’s report did not come to a conclusion about whether President Trump obstructed justice. 

In the letter, Barr says that in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he decided what Mueller gathered did not make a compelling case that Trump obstructed justice. Barr also indicated that he intended to release the report after information that can’t be publicly disclosed is removed. 

The initial reaction—especially from Trump and his supporters—was that Barr’s letter was an indication that Mueller’s investigation, which lasted more than two years and yielded more than three dozen indictments, essentially exonerated the president and the campaign.

But it’s impossible to know that without seeing the full report, says Penn Law Professor Claire Finkelstein.

Barr’s letter is skillfully written, she says, but it may also be misleading. Barr writes that he has based his decision about obstruction of justice on the evidence, not on the Justice Department’s longstanding rule that a sitting president can’t be indicted. Barr suggests that Mueller found little evidence, but that may not be the case, Finkelstein says. 

“To me, critically, Barr’s letter leaves open the question of obstruction of justice,” Finkelstein says. “Did the president seek to influence and interfere with an ongoing investigation? Without settling the matter of obstruction, how can we be certain of the underlying finding that there was no conspiracy? After all, the point of obstruction of justice is that it may distort or make unreliable the findings of an investigation.” 

She is struck by Barr’s quotation from the larger report that, while it “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

“I think the White House is doing victory laps prematurely because Barr’s remark about lack of exoneration could point to something quite significant,” she says. “If the full report is released and Barr’s rendition of the principal findings is correct, I think the White House may be a very strong position going into the 2020 election. 

“But if they release the report and there’s any significant daylight between what Mueller found and what’s in that letter, it will look very bad for the Justice Department and for the administration.” 

Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of Russian and East European studies, agrees that there are many details we don’t yet know. 

“Russia attacked the election. That is indisputable,” he says. “We don’t know anything more today than we did before the Barr letter.”

To Orenstein, who has been studying Russia’s efforts to influence foreign elections for more than a decade, the critical questions revolve around Russian money and how it found its way into the Trump campaign and other projects. The indictments of several players, including Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, and alleged Russian operative Maria Butina indicate that was a focus of the Mueller probe, he says. 

“We need to know how many millions of dollars came into the 2016 campaign. Given that he has been following the money trail in regard to Manafort, I would be disappointed if there’s no mention of money in the Mueller report,” says Orenstein, whose latest book, “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West in the New Politics of Hybrid War,” will be published in May. 

“There’s tons of evidence of cooperation between the campaign and the Russians. We have to see the report to know what is going on here.”

This is important to protect the integrity of elections, and not just here, he says. Russia meddled in Ukrainian politics, in elections where Manafort worked on the winning campaign, and in other nations as well. Understanding how those efforts worked is a key part of stopping future incursions. 

“What were, exactly, the relationships between the Russians, Manafort, and the Trump campaign?” Orenstein asks. “There are absolutely good reasons to think Manafort was a Russian vehicle at the time he was campaign manager. You can think this wasn’t fully known by Trump, or that there was no reason for Trump to think this. But those are still questions we need to know the answer to, and we won’t know them unless we see the report.” 

Assuming the full report comes to light—either through a formal release or an eventual leak—the details may tell us more about Trump the businessman and a person than Trump the candidate and president, says political science professor Rudra Sil

“I think that, if we are to believe Barr, we can move on from the idea of systematic collusion at the highest levels between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign,” he says. “But beyond that the main things the Mueller report is likely to contain is a lot of information about unsavory behavior of many individuals, about a lot of questionable economic choices or political judgments by Trump and people close to him, and about individuals in the Russian military-security apparatus who are in charge of dealing with the U.S.”

Sil, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations, is writing a book titled “Russia Reconsidered: Fate of a Former Superpower.” 

He says the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated since last summer’s summit meeting. The U.S. and Russia are on different sides of the constitutional crisis in Venezuela and a proposed oil pipeline. There have been further sanctions and counter-sanctions and significant steps backward on arms control. 

“With all that taken into consideration, I do not think that Trump and Putin, who are really very different personalities, are going to be able to do much in the near term to walk things back from the current low point in U.S.-Russia relations,” Sil says. “It is difficult to imagine that this relationship will be repaired until we go through another electoral cycle here in the U.S. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that things don’t get worse.”

Another key question that rests on whether the report is released: The impact on U.S. politics, especially as the 2020 presidential campaign cycle ramps up. 

With many Republicans already pushing to move on from the fundamental questions, “I hope it’s weeks rather than years before the report is released,” Orenstein says, even if Barr refuses. 

Will the average voter care? Sil wonders. 

“The real question is whether the public, particularly the ‘median voter,’ will have much tolerance for more investigations or charges once the air was let out of the balloon in terms of things like ‘collusion’ and ‘treason,’” Sil says. “And, given that the report will certainly galvanize Trump and his base, I also wonder if it’s in the Democrats’ best interest now to keep hammering away at the Trump administration through investigations as opposed to a more sober, concerted effort to devise an alternative vision linked to specific reasons to oppose Trump’s actual policies.” 

Claire Finkelstein is the Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy and faculty director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. 

Mitchell Orenstein is professor and department chair in the Russia and East European Studies Department of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. 

Rudra Sil is professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Arts and Sciences Director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business.