The 400-page Mueller report, expected to land this week, is the most anticipated political read since Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky and the stained blue dress—and potentially even juicier. But how do you wring that juice out of a behemoth of a legal document, full of redactions, at the speed of social media?
That’s what the tribes of American politics are gearing up to do this week.
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From the moment it drops, the scramble will be on—to defend the president, to plan new lines of attack, or to put this whole big crazy story into the wider context of American history. So much material released all at once raises the question of how to dig in on something so dense, with so much buildup, where the feeding frenzy will be instant among the cable TV chattering classes and Twitter piranhas.
The capital has already evolved one model for processing a big tell-all book: “the Washington read,” where you scan the index (assuming there is one) to find everything it says about you, your boss and your enemies and then fake like you’ve read the rest. But this time that won’t be enough. The goods might not come easily. They might be buried in an obscure subsection. And there’s way more at stake than in the typical gossipy memoir.
The report by special counsel Robert Mueller could be the biggest oppo dump in history. It could be a fizzle. Although Mueller didn’t find enough evidence to charge President Donald Trump for conspiring with Russia to win the White House, and Attorney General William Barr has concluded that it doesn’t show Trump obstructed justice, the report itself is expected to be rich with details uncovered by the sweeping 22-month investigation.
We already know something about the way the report will look, courtesy of Barr. The attorney general last week told Congress that the document will be color-coded to explain why lawyers for Mueller and DOJ have redacted some of the most sensitive material. But he promised that, for all the gaps, the report won’t end up looking totally like Swiss cheese. “You will get more than the gist,” Barr told a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
To help navigate this once-in-a-generation moment, POLITICO asked dozens of people who have been tuned in since the 2016 presidential election—Trump officials, Republicans and Democrats, former prosecutors, academics, historians and even the Russians—how they plan to read this two-years-in-the-making document when it shows up in their inbox. Here’s what some of them said.
The President’s Defenders
Nobody has more at stake than Trump and his inner circle of family members, aides, loyalists and defenders. They’ve already seen some of their former colleagues face criminal charges and jail time from the Mueller probe. With the report’s arrival, they know that any page could still contain a ticking bomb, one that could open the door to more legal scrutiny or kneecap the president politically as he mounts his reelection campaign. But the document might also have exculpatory material that would help Trump push back with his narrative that the whole probe has been a “witch hunt.”
Above all, Team Trump will need to respond. So inside the president’s world, the attention will be focused on digesting the material, and quickly.
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s media-savvy personal lawyer, said he’ll have a team of five to six people in place, each assigned a key section to read in parallel. The goal is preparing the quickest possible response to blast out to reporters—as well as to brief him and Rudy Giuliani as they fan out to talk more at length in media interviews. If it were just one analyst reading, he said, “we’d be talking to you the next day”—far too late for crisis management.
Like everyone outside the Barr and Mueller inner circles, Sekulow said he’s still in the dark about how the special counsel report will be structured. He doesn’t know if there will be executive summaries, a section featuring conclusions or if it will even come in an easily searchable PDF document. But he said he’s taking comfort in knowing Barr, a Trump appointee, has already read the report and decided nothing in it rose to the level of prosecution. “At the end of the day, it’s like waiting for the jury verdict, except you know what the jury verdict is already,” he said.
For others in Trumpworld, especially those pulled into the investigation quagmire themselves, the report means other things. Ty Cobb, who served for a year as the lead White House lawyer handling Mueller matters, downplayed his interest in its revelations, saying he was familiar with most of the facts and would mainly be reading to see how the lawyers did their jobs. “The results of their hard work will be of interest to the extent they can be deduced,” he wrote in an email.
Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump associate and early 2016 campaign adviser, wasn’t so blasé about it and said he has a reading strategy in place: He’ll start first with the executive summary—assuming there is one—to see how it matches with Barr’s “CliffsNotes” version of the memo, issued last month. Then he plans to go to the collusion section, since that was the main issue he found himself questioned on, before turning to the portion dealing with obstruction.
Caputo’s version of “the Washington read” will be to scan the index for specific top Trump aides he knows and who have been central to the entire investigation, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, longtime Trump associate Roger Stone and former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
“I’ll also read the George Papadopoulos section just to see how much it differs from his book, ‘Deep State Target,’” he said of the Trump campaign adviser who served two weeks in prison last year for lying to the FBI. “And I’ll probably poke around looking for traces of myself, but I don’t expect to see my name much at all.”
Caputo said he’ll read every word. “I mean, they took the time to read all of my emails and texts, so it’s the least I can do,” he said.
The oppo file
For Democratic operatives and Trump’s other political rivals, the Mueller report still hangs in that seductive space between fantasy hit job and grave disappointment. In the first version, it contains long-awaited insights into how and why Russia helped Trump—with or without his collaboration—to beat Hillary Clinton en route to the White House. And it could also offer the details they need to start beating the impeachment drum louder—which means the kinds of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that might not amount to legally prosecutable offenses but would warrant Congress seeking the president’s removal from office.
What are they looking for, specifically? “I am most interested in reading if anyone inside the campaign reported to the FBI or others any contact with Russian officials or individuals who promised to provide dirt,” said Donna Brazile, who took over as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in July 2016 after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned after the public release of her hacked emails.
In terms of tactics, several Democrats said they planned to handle the deluge of information with the quintessential 2019 reading experience: using two or even three screens. Former Obama White House speechwriter David Litt will have Twitter open while he’s making his way through the report, watching in particular for posts from several of the more prominent legal and analytical voices who have narrated the story’s plot twists as it evolved: Ken White (@popehat), Mimi Rocah (@Mimirocah1), Renato Mariotti (@Renato_Mariotti), Marcy Wheeler (@emptywheel), Neal Katyal (@neal_katyal) “for the definitive word on special-counsel regs” and Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight “to think through the political implications.” “Basically I’m assembling my own panel, except there’s no yelling, thoughtful argument, and zero chance of Kellyanne Conway showing up,” Litt said.
Similarly, Ann Lewis, a former Clinton White House communications director, said she would begin by reading “carefully from the beginning.”
“But, candidly, I recognize that some very smart people will have begun highlighting what they find most important—so I will probably read with the full text on one computer and another open to tweets and summaries,” she added.
One open question for political insiders is how much to rely on news coverage. Don Goldberg, a former Clinton White House communications aide who handled investigations for that scandal-plagued Democratic administration, plans to read the news first: “I think reporters who have been covering this from the start will be far more attuned to what’s important and how it relates to other court filings, reporter articles, congressional activities, etc., and also be more sensitive to what’s new. That will be my shortcut, and I may read through it in full after I digest POLITICO’s coverage.”
On the opposite side is Julian Epstein, a former House Judiciary Committee chief counsel for Democrats during the Clinton impeachment saga, who has found the media coverage so far more of a red herring than a useful guide to what matters. “Given how badly the pundits and chattering class misread the Mueller investigation, despite clear signs that caution was warranted,” he said, “I can’t imagine anyone will be able to meaningfully add to the debate without carefully reading the entire report with all its nuances—cover to cover, starting with Page 1.”
And then there’s Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton White House press secretary whose ideal strategy for the Mueller report rollout turns it into more of a This Town tailgate party. “I plan to take my lawn chair and a cooler of beer and read at the end of Ken Starr’s driveway,” he wrote in an email.
The Mueller probe has created something of a cottage industry for the former prosecutors, defense attorneys and anyone else who previously worked on a high-profile government investigation. Some have even landed jobs paying five or six figures as cable TV pundits. The professional class isn’t just fascinated by one of the highest-profile inquiries in America in decades, it’s also possibly the most informed audience about how it works, and thus uniquely attuned to what to look for.
Julie Myers Wood worked as a prosecutor on Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton and has a clear strategy for where to start—one that involves setting aside the summaries in favor of the potentially meatiest chapters. “The obstruction section and Mueller’s decision not to decide on obstruction are the areas I’m most interested in reading first,” she wrote in an email. “Knowing the Mueller team, the summaries are likely excellent, but I want to digest the specific facts myself.”
Joyce Vance, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney from the Northern District of Alabama who has become a frequent MSNBC guest discussing the Mueller probe, said she’ll read the report “like any other case file, front to back, with a notepad next to me to make notes about key pieces of evidence, omissions and questions.”
Prosecutors look to see if the evidence is sufficient to establish if there’s been a specific statutory violation that can be proved in court beyond a reasonable doubt, and Vance said she’ll be looking for Mueller’s assessment for why he chose not to file charges against Trump on obstruction. “It seems likely he took that approach because he believed that decision was for Congress,” she said, referring to the prospect that the special counsel intended to hand over his evidence and findings for impeachment proceedings. “I’ll be interested in whether the report confirms that.”
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who previously worked with Mueller attorney Andrew Weissmann, said he’ll be looking for the executive summaries that Mueller’s prosecutors were reportedly frustrated about not making it into Barr’s initial readout.
The Chicago-based attorney has a couple other pro tips. First, read it on paper. “I will first print it in hard copy, so I can highlight important bits and so I can make comments in the margins; also because I am of an age when serious reading requires that it be on paper,” he said.
And Cotter already has a game plan for how he’ll get through it all. “If it comes out during the day, I will then get an Earl Grey tea and a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints, turn off my phone, ask my assistant to head off any calls and close my door,” he said. “If it comes out after 5:00 p.m., I will get a large Irish whiskey, neat.”
Mueller’s finished product will have a very different meaning for the experts who study this sort of thing. If media coverage is the first draft of history, they’ll be writing the second draft—but they’re also prepped to offer real-time commentary.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who has written books about everyone from Rosa Parks to Ronald Reagan, said that in his experience the “only way” to process something like Mueller’s report is from beginning to end “quickly, very quickly.”
“Cherry-picking information causes confusion,” he said. Brinkley was one of the National Book Award judges who nominated “The 9/11 Commission Report,” a 585-page government document, for the nonfiction prize in 2004; it was a finalist, but didn’t win. Mueller’s effort, he hopes, will be similarly produced and “written for public understanding, not legal scholars.”
Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University communications professor writing a book about Trump’s 2016 campaign and demagoguery, said she will be reading the Mueller report cover to cover, “looking for juicy bits”—and especially for answers to some lingering questions she has. She’s closely studied the two indictments the special counsel filed in 2018 that named some two dozen Russian officials, companies, hackers and computer programmers as responsible for much of the online mayhem that rattled the last White House race—and is eager to find out why one set of charges made no direct connection to Trump while the other did just that.
“As I read the report, I’ll be looking to see if there is more information about that distinction, which I think is really important to understanding what (if anything) happened between the Trump campaign and Russia,” she said.
Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who wrote a book making the case for Trump’s impeachment, said he’d be looking to read Mueller’s findings in full to see the context behind the sentence fragments that Barr used in his initial readout to Congress and which the president has used to claim “total EXONERATION.” Lichtman’s goal: to assess whether the attorney general “deliberately covered up damaging information about the president and his associates.”
“Words matter for the historian,” he said. “Even responsible journalists have misleadingly said that the Mueller report clears the president of collusion, when even the fragments cited in the William Barr ‘Summary’ do not use the word collusion but consider only whether the campaign ‘conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.’ ”
Unless its intelligence is better than we think, there’s one other party profoundly interested in what the Mueller report reveals. And the message it wants Americans to hear is: Nothing to see here.
Asked how it planned to read the Mueller report, the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., replied through a spokesman with a link to its Facebook page, on which one finds a statement from President Vladimir Putin given during an international conference last week in which he denied collusion between Trump and Russia.
We “knew a mountain was being made out of a molehill, so to speak,” Putin said, “because we knew how it would end beforehand.”