The weasel words and what they’re hiding

William Saletan does a close reading of Barr’s letter:

The letter says the Justice Department won’t prosecute Trump, but it reaches that conclusion by tailoring legal standards to protect the president. Here’s a list of Barr’s weasel words and what they’re hiding.

“The Russian government.” The letter quotes a sentence from Mueller’s report. In that sentence, Mueller says his investigation didn’t prove that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The sentence specifies Russia’s government. It says nothing about coordination with other Russians.

Like for instance Kilimnik and Veselnitskaya.

“In its election interference activities.” This phrase is included in the same excerpt.
It reflects the structure of the investigation. Mueller started with a counterintelligence probe of two specific Russian government operations: the production of online propaganda to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. These are the two operations Mueller targeted in his indictments of Russians last year.

But there are others. Mueller may have confined his investigation that way but it doesn’t follow that that’s all there is.

“Agreement—tacit or express.” A footnote in Barr’s letter says the special counsel defined coordination as “agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” The letter doesn’t clarify whether this definition originally came from Mueller or from the Justice Department. This, too, limits the range of prosecutable collusion. We know, for example, that in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. was told in an email that “the Crown prosecutor of Russia” had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary … and would be very useful to your father.” The email said the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. wrote back: “If it’s what you say I love it.” Apparently, by the standards asserted in the letter, this doesn’t count as even “tacit agreement … on election interference.”

Barr has narrowed things down to a point and Trump-Fox are claiming he’s included the whole universe.

Barr’s letter mixes two different authors. On questions of conspiracy and coordination, Barr summarizes Mueller’s findings. But on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr draws his own conclusion: “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” That’s Barr’s opinion, not Mueller’s. As the letter concedes, Mueller “did not draw a conclusion one way or the other as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” That’s for the rest of us to decide.

But is it? Morally, yes, but actionably? Barr has the power, and he can just block us from deciding in such a way that consequences result.

One reason to be suspicious of Barr’s conclusions is that in the course of the letter, he tweaks Mueller’s opinion to look more like his own. Mueller’s report, as excerpted by Barr, says “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” Barr quotes that line and then, in the same sentence, concludes that “the absence of such evidence bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction.” But the excerpt from Mueller’s report doesn’t refer to an absence of evidence. It refers to a presence of evidence, and it says this evidence isn’t enough to prove a crime. Throughout the investigation, this has been a standard Republican maneuver: misrepresenting an absence of proof as an absence of evidence. Barr’s use of this maneuver in his letter is a red flag that he’s writing partisan spin.

All together now: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We all learned that song in the cradle.

There’s more; it’s all interesting.

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