The Critical Part of Mueller’s Report That Barr Didn’t Mention

March 26, 2019

Cliff Owen / Associated Press

On Sunday afternoon, Attorney General Bill Barr presented a summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions that contained a few sentences from Mueller’s final report, one of which directly addressed the question of collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” In a footnote, Barr explained that Mueller had defined “coordination” as an “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

Mueller’s full report has not been made available to the public yet, so it’s not clear whether it sets forth everything the special counsel’s office learned over the course of its nearly two-year investigation—including findings about conduct that was perhaps objectionable but not criminal—or whether it is more tailored and explains only Mueller’s prosecution and declination decisions. But national-security and intelligence experts tell me that Mueller’s decision not to charge Trump or his campaign team with a conspiracy is far from dispositive, and that the underlying evidence the special counsel amassed over two years could prove as useful as a conspiracy charge to understanding the full scope of Russia’s election interference in 2016.

“As described by Barr, at least, Mueller’s report was very focused on criminal-law standards and processes,” said David Kris, a founder of Culper Partners, who served as the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division under former President Barack Obama. “We won’t know for sure if that is the case, and if it is the case, why Mueller confined himself in that way, until we see the full report.” Kris noted, however, that “there is no question that a counterintelligence investigation would have a wider aperture than a strict criminal inquiry as applied here, and would be concerned, for example, with the motivations and any sub-criminal misconduct of the principal actors.”

A counterintelligence probe, he added, would ask more than whether the evidence collected is sufficient to obtain a criminal conviction—it could provide necessary information to the public about why the president is making certain policy decisions. “The American people rightly should expect more from their public servants than merely avoiding criminal liability,” Kris said.

A spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee said in a statement on Monday that in light of Barr’s memo “and our need to understand Special Counsel Mueller’s areas of inquiry and evidence his office uncovered, we are working in parallel with other Committees to bring in senior officials from the DOJ, FBI and SCO to ensure that our Committee is fully and currently informed about the SCO’s investigation, including all counterintelligence information.”

In May 2017, just after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, the FBI launched a full counterintelligence investigation into the president to determine whether he was acting as a Russian agent. “We were concerned, and we felt like we had credible, articulable facts to indicate that a threat to national security may exist,” former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe explained to me last month. It’s still not clear what became of that counterintelligence probe after Mueller was appointed, and Barr did not indicate in his four-page summary how far the special counsel pursued it.

Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff at the Defense Department and the CIA under Obama, said he believes Mueller’s “core focus” was to determine whether or not federal criminal laws were violated. “If Mueller interpreted his mandate as a criminal one, the decision to pursue the investigation as such is something he will have to explain to Congress,” Bash said.

Mueller’s mandate, given to him by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, empowered him to investigate not only any “coordination” between the campaign and Russia, but any “links” between them as well. Barr’s summary does not describe how Mueller investigated or came to explain the many interactions the campaign had with various Russians during the election.

Even so, Bash said, it’s an “immense challenge” to envision how a counterintelligence investigation targeting the president himself would have played out. “Normally, the bureau would investigate, and if criminal matters were involved, they’d ask prosecutors to get involved,” he said. “But if it is just a matter of there being a national-security threat, the FBI would report to the director of national intelligence, who would then report to the president. But what if the president is the threat? We don’t have a playbook for this.”

Generally speaking, the wide aperture afforded by a counterintelligence investigation might be key to understanding some of the biggest lingering mysteries of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians in 2016—mysteries that, if solved, could explain the president’s continued deference toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and skepticism about his conduct on the part of the U.S. intelligence community.

For example, was the fact that Trump pursued a multimillion-dollar real-estate deal in Moscow during the election—and failed to disclose the deal to the public—enough for the Russians to compromise him? Why did the administration attempt to lift the sanctions on Russia early on in Trump’s tenure, even after it had been revealed that Russia had attacked the 2016 election? And what about the internal campaign polling data that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, gave to the suspected Russian agent Konstantin Kilimnik in August 2016—an episode that, according to one of the top prosecutors on Mueller’s team, went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating”?

Mueller apparently determined that none of that evidence was enough to establish that a criminal conspiracy had occurred, which is fairly unsurprising if you know Bob Mueller, said John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA who served under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime.

Mueller “always noted that the term evidence meant something different to intelligence analysts who had to work with a variety of sources of varying reliability, whereas an FBI officer needed something so unassailable as to work in a court prosecution,” McLaughlin told me, referring to the conversations he had with Mueller while he was FBI director. But as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who now hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast, told me, “We still do not understand why President Trump has this affinity for Putin. What happened yesterday is Mueller took one possibility off the table—that there was a criminal conspiracy. But we still don’t know what is going on between these two leaders, and what is driving this relationship.”

It would once have been unthinkable to even contemplate that a sitting president was putting the interests of a hostile foreign power above those of the United States. But Trump’s consistent praise of Putin, his pursuit of a massive real-estate deal in Moscow while Russia was waging a hacking and disinformation campaign against the United States in 2016, and the secrecy that continues to surround his conversations with his Russian counterpart have given some in the national-security community, including many leading Democrats, pause.

Trump took the extraordinary step of confiscating his interpreter’s notes after his first private meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, according to The Washington Post, and demanded that the interpreter refrain from discussing the meeting with members of his own administration. In Helsinki, Finland, one year later, Trump insisted on meeting with Putin with no American advisers or aides present.

Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, said he “never envisioned” that Mueller would bring a conspiracy charge—and that focusing on the absence of criminal indictments for conspiracy is unproductive. “If all we do is apply criminal standards to investigative findings, we are missing the point,” Figliuzzi told me. He noted that the vast majority of counterintelligence cases never result in criminal prosecution. Instead, he said, “they’re about determining the degree to which a foreign power has targeted, compromised, or recruited” the subject. “This thing started as a counterintelligence investigation,” Figliuzzi said, “and it needs to end as a counterintelligence investigation.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Natasha Bertrand is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers national security and the intelligence community.

6 thoughts on “The Critical Part of Mueller’s Report That Barr Didn’t Mention

  1. Din:

    Natasha Bertrand has correctly stated: “Mueller’s full report has not been made available to the public yet, so it’s not clear whether it sets forth everything the special counsel’s office learned over the course of its nearly two-year investigation — including findings about conduct that was perhaps objectionable but not criminal — or whether it is more tailored and explains only Mueller’s prosecution and declination decisions.”

    Do I believe the Russians were trying to influence the American election in 2016? Absolutely. They have been trying to do that all the times, just as the Americans are involved in influencing elections all over the world, including Malaysia, usually through the CIA financed NED. Ask Mahathir, ask Anwar, ask Najib … and ask all NGOs in Malaysia if they have received funds from the NED and other American organizations. And often the influence comes from intelligence disguised as scholars, advisers, and business dealers.

    And this time, I believe, Donald Trump campaign team let the Russians in. That’s why many top officials of Trump campaign team are now in Jail. But evidences of Trump direct involvement, I believe, are at best circumstantial. And circumstantial evidences are not enough to indict a president, especially a sitting one.

    When will Bill Barr release the Mueller report to the American public? May be never. Before Barr became the AG, his criticisms of Robert Muller are public records. He believes this Russia investigation is unnecessary and a sitting president cannot be indicted. He believes whatever a president does is never illegal. I believe he is out to protect Donald Trump. But that’s my opinion, and opinion is not a fact.

    According to a survey conducted by Quinnipiac University, a whopping 84% of the country believes Mueller’s findings should be made public. Voters don’t think Barr’s four-page public relations document is enough. They want to see the actual report, not a few cherry-picked fragments. But the rules give AG the power to release his summaries and redactions of the report from a special counsel, and can hold the actual report indefinitely. Even in releasing his summaries and redactions Barr is taking a slow-walking. Moreover, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has come out to say AG William Barr will allow the White House to edit the Mueller report before it is released to the public. Trump and his White House are going to make sure that the American people don’t get to see the unedited version of the Mueller report.

    For another four or five months, I believe there will be back-and-forth about the details of the report. Personally, I really don’t care, for the damage to Trump presidency has already been done. The most Trump can hope for is to argue to voters in 2020 that, while he did his best to keep most of his promises, he was fighting with one hand behind his back. For the rest of his presidency, the other at least 13 criminal investigations in him, his family and his businesses will keep him awfully busy. His only way out is to win another 4 years of presidency. Expect more drastic and erratic behavior from him.

    Of course the Russians and the Chinese would love to have Trump as POTUS for another 4 years. China is quietly gaining more global influence with Trump as POTUS, witness the recent relations between Italy and China. Italy has become the first from G7 to join the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi Jinping’s visit to France after Italy, Emmanuel Macron invited Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker to join meeting with Xi in Paris. Europe is tired of Donald Trump.

    Expect China to give Trump an optic “win” over the trade deal without giving him much, as Trump really needs this “win” for his 2020 election. Trump’s former director of National Economic Council Gary Cohn let it be known in an interview on Freakonomics Radio released March 13 night: Trump is “desperate” for a trade agreement with China. It was Trump who called Xi twice to set up this trade meetings, when he realized that Xi was prepared to wait him out to dig in for a trade war with him.

    After Bill Barr’s summary report indicated there was no criminal collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia, many Democrats were down in the dumps — but not Nancy Pelosi. She may be may the happiest person in Washington DC. The conclusion of the Mueller probe allows her to shift the public focus to the Democrats’ legislative agenda, which is where she wants it. It also silences a small but very vocal minority in her caucus who want to impeach Trump, an effort that Pelosi has discouraged. Pelosi sees impeachment as futile, as it will never pass the Senate which is still controlled by the Republican.

    Yesterday Pelosi met with her caucus and delivered a clear message: Don’t let Barr’s letter summarizing the Mueller report get you down. She said that her fellow Democrats now must focus on bread-and-butter policy issues, such as health care, jobs and a better government.

    I have had my disagreements with Pelosi and have had my arguments with her during some meetings in San Francisco and the Bay Area. But I think Pelosi is wise to focus on bread-and-butter policy issues. It is unlikely that Trump will win the 2020 election. And even if he did, the Democrats can still impeach him if they have control of both the House and the Senate, which is very likely.

    Trump claims that Mueller has exonerated him. It is disappointing to note that after two years and loads of tax dollars,the president has gotten off very lightly..It is politics of power.The Trump is likely be around in 2020.–Din Merican.

  2. Full report will tarnish Trump in different way – that is really what the fight is all about. The main show is over. Democrats especially so called “progressives” need to understand they have no monopoly over ethics and morality, nor their agenda for change is permitted to compromise standards or be flippant just because Trump and most Republican leaders have lost most of theirs..

  3. It is OO-ver. Just move on . In the event there is new evidence oo either side of the divide take action and , Please, Please, be consistent in the action that is taken.

  4. It is OO-ver. Just move on. In the event there is new evidence on either side of the divide take action and please, please, be consistent in the action taken.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.