April 17, 2019

On Thursday, journalists may be writing the most important story of 2019 when they report whatever the Justice Department releases of the Mueller report.

What the report does or does not show, you should resolve now to limit the adjectives you use to report this story on Thursday.

Take a pledge not to use the word “explosive” as so many did describing Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony. (Just Google “explosive Cohen” and you will see what I mean.)

Journalists will be looking for some key themes. It may help to have this timeline spreadsheet in front of you when you get the report in hand to keep track of what happened when.

What evidence is there that the president obstructed justice? Attorney General William Barr said the Mueller report did not find enough evidence to say if the president obstructed justice. The AG’s conclusion that there was not enough evidence is not to say there was no evidence. Barr’s summary said:

The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as “difficult issues” of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Journalists will be looking at what evidence there is and what is lacking in the evidence.

How much did the Russians do to undermine the 2016 election? Journalists will be looking for whatever evidence Mueller found that the Russians hacked into election systems and used social media to influence voters. Don’t forget that underlying all of this investigation is evidence that a foreign government tried to undermine a U.S. presidential election. What has your city/county/state done to increase security of voting machines and records? Last year, Congress allocated $400 million for states to tighten elections security. Here is a list of how much each state and territory got.

What did your state do with that money?

The Department of Homeland Security said last year that the inability to audit election results in some states is a national security risk. Some states had no paper backup to the electronic systems they use.

To what extent did the Trump campaign interact with Russians during the 2016 campaign? Did Barr correctly summarize the Special Counsel’s investigation when he wrote:

“The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

The PBS NewHour published a list of search terms you could use to help you flash through the report. Using their suggested words, let me add a little context as to what you could look for. The hot terms you might try include:

Obstruction: Look for what the proof is or isn’t. U.S. federal law defines obstruction as anyone who “corruptly … endeavors to influence, obstruct or impede the due and proper administration of the law under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States.”

Conspiracy: Look for who colluded with whom. It is the word the president denies the most, as in “no collusion.” But if the report shows “some collusion” it would be big trouble for the president.

Putin: Conventional wisdom is that the Russian president is behind whatever the Russians did to interfere in the election. Is there any proof?

James Comey: Journalists will be looking for what, if any, evidence there is that the president attempted to obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey. The president himself said the Russia investigation was a factor in the firing. He told NBC’s Lester Holt that “This Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired Comey.

Michael Cohen: The President’s lawyer cooperated with the investigation but to what end? Cohen alleged all kinds of things when he testified before Congressional Democrats. Did Mueller confirm any of that?

Michael Flynn: The former National Security Advisor cooperated with Mueller but we will be looking in the report to discover what he provided. Remember that Flynn was so cooperative that Mueller recommended no prison time for Flynn. What did he say that was so useful? In the sentencing report, Mueller’s team said Flynn provided 19 interviews and information about “interactions between individuals in the presidential transition team and Russia.” What information? Who was interacting with whom?

Inauguration: Late in the Mueller investigation, it appeared that investigators were increasingly interested in how/whether foreign governments donated money for the inauguration. Barr’s summary didn’t mention this matter, so it’s uncertain whether the full report mentions it either. Either way, there is an ongoing investigation into the money behind the inauguration.

The juiciest phrase might be Christopher Steele, if the Mueller report goes anywhere near the so-called dossier that set the whole investigation into motion. The dossier has been described as everything from a linchpin to nonsense.

A couple of other issues that might or might not be in the report:

Will Mueller say whether he believes that a president can be indicted? Could that have anything to do with the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to prosecute for obstruction of justice?

The Mueller report may expose big holes in public accountability that Congress may need to address. Some groups including the Brennan Center are saying that no matter what the Mueller report says, Congress should pass legislation saying a president should not be allowed to “self-pardon.” The center said Congress should also use this opportunity to pass laws that require a president and vice president to disclose income tax records, pass a law to justify pardons for close associates, and pass a law requiring all law enforcement agencies to keep a log of any contact with the White House and provide those summaries to Congress.

There will be redactions. dAnybody who has ever filed a Freedom of Information request knows that redactions are the result of negotiations and judgments. No doubt Democrats in Congress will press to get the unedited report. Journalists have FOIA’ed for an unredacted version, too. Experts say its most likely Barr will impose what is known as Rule 6 (e) which makes grand jury testimony secret. Barr mentioned this in his summary memo. Grand jury testimony is usually secret because grand juries sometimes hear testimony about unproven allegations and making those allegations public would be unfair to the accused. Grand jury witness lists can be public, however.

Barr may also redact information that he says compromises national security such as how the government investigated Russian interference with the election. There might also be redacted information that relates to other investigations still underway, and there are a bunch of them.

When the report is released Thursday morning, can we all agree not to call it “breaking news?” We have known for a week that it was coming. Take a deep breath. There are more than a dozen other investigations and lawsuits surrounding the President and his associates.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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