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In the short run, America’s divisions may well get worse. Sunday’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s main conclusions, as summarized by Attorney General William Barr, could widen gulfs of suspicion and misunderstanding. Where Republicans are claiming victory and seeking a probe of the investigation’s alleged political origins, Democrats are clamoring for the whole Mueller report to be made public.
But the longer run may be a different story. The point of Mr. Mueller’s probe was to protect the U.S. electoral system from interference by a foreign power, as much or more than to put culpable individuals in jail. The investigation publicly identified two main Russian efforts to influence the election, one involving social media and disinformation, the other hacking into Democratic computers. Both led to bombshell indictments of Russian nationals.
They may not completely see it now, but both of the two big parties that govern America have a vested interest in defending the nation against this kind of foreign attack.
“We have common interest in American democracy,” says legal expert Andy Wright. “Being interfered with by foreign powers ... I think we all share some values on that.”
What happens now to America’s divisions?
In the short run they may well get worse. Sunday’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s main conclusions, as summarized by Attorney General William Barr, could widen the gulf of suspicion and misunderstanding between the nation’s polarized political factions.
Republicans are triumphant that the threat of a conspiracy indictment for President Donald Trump or his family members or associates has evaporated. Some are in no mood for forbearance and are urging the GOP leadership to push turnabout investigations into the alleged Democratic origins of a deep state conspiracy against the president.
Democrats are downcast that the special counsel investigation apparently isn’t going to push Mr. Trump out of office, or hobble him with serious legal accusations. Many want to see the whole Mueller Report and supporting documents – a paper pile they suspect will portray the president in a harsher light.
But the medium or long run may be a different story. The point of Mr. Mueller’s probe was to protect the United States electoral system from interference by a foreign power, as much or more than to put culpable individuals in jail. Attorney General Barr’s summary notes that the investigation publicly identified two main Russian efforts to influence the election: one involving social media and disinformation, the other hacking into Democratic computers. Both led to bombshell indictments of Russian nationals, including officers in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
They may not completely see it now, but both of the two big parties that govern America have a vested interest in defending the nation against this kind of foreign attack. That urges a bipartisan effort lest the legitimacy of the 2020 vote come into question.
“We have common interest in American democracy. Being interfered with by foreign powers ... I think we all share some values on that,” says Andy Wright, an attorney who managed investigation issues for Vice President Al Gore and later served as associate counsel in the Obama White House.
Senator Graham’s push
On Monday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina showed something of how this short/long term split on divisiveness might work out in practice.
Senator Graham, a close ally of the president and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said at a press conference that he wants to investigate alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at the start of the FBI’s Russia inquiry. He called on Mr. Barr to appoint a new special counsel to investigate the “other side of the story” – whether the Obama administration unlawfully obtained a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate as a way to help Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Democrats have long considered the FISA fixation as a diversionary tactic that relies on misreading the evidence that caused the FBI to begin its probe. An effort by Mr. Graham to flip from an investigation of the current president to renewed attention on the previous administration is sure to inflame partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, Mr. Graham talked about how Russia’s real aim in its election hacking efforts was to turn Americans against each other, and that they’d “done a pretty good job of it.”
“They’re still doing this, and one of the things I want to take away from this whole endeavor is to try to find ways to fix it,” Mr. Graham said.
The political system is now critical US infrastructure in the same sense that the power grid and financial system are, and the vote tallying process needs to be hardened, the Judiciary chairman said. Social media can be co-opted to spread lies and insert corrupted information into the nation’s streams of discourse.
“If we don’t take that from this investigation, that the Russians tried to do it and they’re going to keep trying, then we missed a real big point,” Mr. Graham said.
A summary, and cries for more
Mr. Barr released his four-page summary of Mr. Mueller’s main points on Sunday night. He said the special counsel had found no conspiracy between Russia and the president or any Trump-related officials. Mr. Mueller drew no conclusions as to whether Mr. Trump had obstructed justice in the probe. Mr. Barr and his deputy Rod Rosenstein concluded that the Mueller report had insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Trump on that question.
Democrats pointed out that the summary released so far contains only a smattering of Mr. Mueller’s own words – 100 or so. While most accept the conclusion about no conspiracy, they want to see supporting evidence, especially on the question of possible obstruction. Why did Mr. Mueller make the decisions he did?
There is no foreseeable scenario under which Democrats will be satisfied with less than virtually complete access to Mr. Mueller’s work, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
“We are just coming to the end of phase one. Phase two is going to be much more legalistic and drawn out,” says Dr. Engel.
By inserting himself into the process of releasing Mueller’s information, Mr. Barr has set himself up as a sort of movie critic, he says.
It’s as if you’ve seen a trailer for a blockbuster movie, and it looks really interesting, according to Dr. Engel. Then Mr. Barr steps on screen to tell you he’s seen the whole thing already and you don’t have to, because it’s a bust.
Former Obama White House attorney Andy Wright says he’s disappointed in the continuing partisan attacks on Mr. Mueller’s legitimacy. On Sunday in his first public remarks on the release of Mr. Barr’s summary, Mr. Trump denounced the work of Mr. Mueller – a Republican appointed by a Trump-appointed Republican official – as an “illegal takedown that failed.”
Mr. Wright says he’d like to see the evidence Mr. Mueller collected about both the collusion and obstruction threads in his investigation. He’d like to know specifically what cases Mr. Mueller has handed off to regular Justice Department prosecutors, and if there are further counter-intelligence findings beyond those Mr. Barr discussed.
It’s true that there’s “a ton we don’t know,” Mr. Wright says. “Just a ton.”