The Mueller Report's Biggest Open Secret | Opinion

Nearly every claim made by Donald Trump and his allies in the Republican Party about Volume 1 of the Mueller Report—that copious volume that deals with accusations Trump or his campaign conspired with the Kremlin—has been false.

Trump and his advocates say Mueller found no evidence of conspiracy? That's not true. They say Mueller found no evidence of coordination? Also false. Mueller found no evidence of collusion? False. Mueller considered the facts from every angle but couldn't establish any conspiracy between Trump or his campaign and Russian nationals? False. Mueller made a final determination on whether law enforcement could establish the exceedingly narrow band of conspiracy he investigated? Nope.

Volume 1 of the Mueller Report says none of these things, yet because so few in American media have read or understood the complexities of the volume, most Americans don't realize the Mueller Report's dirty, if depressingly open, secret: Volume 1 contains a lot of harrowing information about the actions of Trump and his campaign, but offers virtually no final conclusions about any of these actions.

So how is this possible? How is one of the most historically important documents ever produced by the U.S. Department of Justice so woefully misunderstood?

The overarching answer is that Mueller didn't investigate what most Americans think he did, and wasn't able to draw inalterable conclusions on the narrow (non-obstruction) topics he did pursue over the nearly two years of his investigation.

First, Mueller clearly reported that he didn't consider the notion of "collusion" at all because it's a "lay" (non-legal) term. So anyone in the White House or Congress who tells Americans the report speaks to the "collusion" issue isn't telling them the truth.

Second, Mueller was explicit in writing that he only considered one potential act of "conspiracy" or "coordination" (two terms he treated as interchangeable): whether Trump or anyone on his campaign conspired (a) with one of two Kremlin-sponsored entities, either Russian military intelligence (the GRU) or the Internet Research Agency (a Russian troll factory), and (b) did so as part of the "election interference" efforts undertaken by these two organizations. In simpler terms, Mueller considered whether Trump or anyone on his team knew about Russian hacking or the Russian pre-election propaganda campaign beforehand, and took discrete steps to aid one or both of these foreign attacks on America's infrastructure.

The strange thing is that no one accused Trump of doing what Mueller investigated.

Indeed, no evidence has ever emerged—nor has anyone claimed that any evidence exists—indicating that Trump or his team knew about the Russian hacking in advance, knew about the Kremlin's disinformation campaign in advance, or funded or supported either campaign on the front end. The most over-the-skis claim ever made on this score appears in the so-called "Steele dossier," which document, produced by the former Russia desk chief for MI6, reports—not as fact, but raw intelligence requiring vetting—that at least one Trump aide may have helped pay for the Russian disinformation campaign over a year after it was already underway.

It's for this reason that Mueller picked his language so carefully in Volume 1 of his report: he didn't say that there was "no" evidence of a before-the-fact Trump-IRA or Trump-GRU conspiracy, but rather that the evidence before him revealed numerous troubling Trump-Russia contacts but couldn't yet "establish" that narrow (never-alleged) form of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt—the very highest standard of proof in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Because Republicans have systematically dissembled regarding this finding for so long—never contending, even momentarily, with its complexities, at least not in public—it's a near-certainty that even the most cautious, meticulous, and honest Republican questioner who appears on television when Mueller testifies before Congress will slip up and falsely say Mueller drew a final conclusion on a Trump-IRA or Trump-GRU conspiracy: namely, that no such conspiracy could ever be alleged.

But even that's not true.

On pg. 10 of Vol. 1 of the Mueller Report, Mueller records all the obstacles placed in the path of his investigation by witnesses in the Trump-Russia case, many of them connected to Trump: they refused to be interviewed; when interviewed, they asserted privilege; when subpoenaed for documents, they fought those subpoenas; when successfully interviewed, they often lied or misled; when interviewed and then subpoenaed for documents, they often withheld some or all of the requested evidence; and when they neither lied nor withheld evidence, it was sometimes because they'd already destroyed the evidence sought by the special counsel's office. Indeed, the effort to stymie Mueller's determination of a narrow issue—whether Trump or his campaign conspired, before the fact, with the GRU or IRA—was so advanced, so pervasive, and so successful that Mueller early in Vol. 1 issues a caveat to his readers: Vol. 1 is just the evidence he was able to get under the circumstances.

Indeed, Mueller reports in Vol. 1 that the evidence withheld from him might well have shed "new light" on the evidence he'd already found, or even be (or lead to) new evidence that would itself significantly alter his conclusions. So Mueller can't even say his findings on the conspiracy question (or the sliver of that question he considered) are "final," and in fact he underscores in Vol. 1 that they're very much contingent: that is, any new information might well amend them, and dramatically.

Even in those rare instances in which Mueller issues a conclusion of sorts in Vol. 1—for instance, in declining to charge Manafort with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. for in mid-campaign giving proprietary data and strategic intelligence to a man he knew was a GRU agent; or, in saying that Donald Trump Jr. didn't have the requisite knowledge of federal law to understand that soliciting campaign donations from a foreign power and then concealing the solicitation was illegal—have been roundly disagreed with by many former federal prosecutors. And we'll never know whether Manafort might in fact have been charged with conspiracy had he not cut a deal with federal prosecutors and then reneged on it after the certainty of him serving many years in federal prison had been established. At that point, Mueller's prosecutors had little appetite left for bringing new indictments.

In other words, even Mueller's few hard-and-fast conclusions on the "conspiracy" question—none of which touch on Trump, nor could they, as Trump refused to be interviewed face-to-face after publicly promising such an encounter—are considered open for debate. And since Mueller says he plans to stick to his report in testifying before Congress, there appears to be no chance, in the short term, that Americans will gain clarity on what Vol. 1 really signifies besides offering up a series of troubling facts about the Kremlin's easy infiltration of the Trump campaign (and the campaign's willingness to participate in and even seek out that infiltration).

Until the U.S. counterintelligence community releases its findings to Congress—and perhaps, given how secretive such an eventual report will be, even after that point—Americans will remain in the dark about what Mueller found or was capable of finding with respect to the bevy of conspiracy or conspiracy-related offenses Trump has been accused or widely suspected of committing: a list that includes aiding and abetting, bribery, money laundering, and conspiracy with non-governmental Russians and governmental and non-governmental persons from several other foreign governments (including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel).

As America prepares to watch the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence question Robert Mueller about Vol. 1 of his report, only one thing is for certain: the GOP, in the absence of much conclusive content in Vol. 1, will continue to tell voters what it wishes were true. And many in American media, lacking either the information or background on Vol. 1 to contest the Republicans' disinformation, will let them continue to say what they like, whether accurate—or honest—or not.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Seth Abramson is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and author of Proof Of Collusion (Simon & Schuster, 2018.) On Twitter @SethAbramson​