The Mueller Report Is Just the Beginning | Opinion

Every great film needs a climactic moment, the thinking goes, so American media is positioning the release of the "Mueller Report"—essentially just a summary of a case file believed to be hundreds of thousands, or even millions of pages long—to be the single moment that either saves or damns the Trump presidency. News-watchers shouldn't be fooled, however: the release of Mueller's summary of his nearly two years of investigative work, while an important milestone in the most complex and far-ranging federal criminal investigation of our lives, is merely a marker in time little different from many such markers that we've already seen and will see as the Trump-Russia story continues to unfold. If it's an ending, it's an ending of one of this historically harrowing story's earliest chapters—that's all.

When American media was, en masse, furiously predicting the exact date of the Mueller Report's release—getting its prediction wrong on at least eight occasions dating back to the fall of 2017—it told its readers and viewers that Mueller was "farming out" a high percentage of his investigative leads to other jurisdictions. In 2017 and 2018, media took that fact merely as a sign that Mueller was almost done with his work, and not, as we must see it in 2019, as a sign that Mueller was, well, farming out a high percentage of his investigative leads to other jurisdictions. In other words, what we read on Thursday, April 18—when a heavily redacted version of the Mueller Report will be released to Congress and the public—will be nothing more than (a) a brutally edited version, of (b) a summary, of (c) a massive case file that has itself (d) been largely sent elsewhere for investigation by other federal prosecutors. Anyone who thinks the Trump-Russia investigation can be in any sense summarized by a two-topic 300- or 400-page report that is missing a quarter of its pages has not been following the Trump-Russia story from the start.

I've written two books on Trump-Russia collusion—Proof of Collusion, released at the end of 2018, and Proof of Conspiracy, forthcoming in August—and even in avoiding much discussion of Trump's obstruction and witness tampering in these books (as these actions were already known by most, by virtue of having occurred publicly) my research swelled to nearly 1,000 pages. Because the books were written in a "government-report" style—with most sentences containing a discrete block of evidence and footnoted to one or more major-media citations—those 1,000 pages were the most condensed version of the Trump-Russia story I could tell. So the notion that Mueller was going to tell in full the tale of Trump-Russia collusion in the half of a heavily redacted 300- or 400-page summary not focused on obstruction of justice was always fanciful.

Here, then, is the reality: Mueller's April 18 summary serves the primary purpose of passing on to the United States Congress the full archive of evidence on Trump's fifty to a hundred acts of obstruction of justice while president, with that archive useful to Congress in determining whether impeachment proceedings are warranted. As most attorneys will tell you that just the public evidence of Trump's obstruction of justice is sufficient to support conviction for that offense, and as obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense per the Republican Party of the Clinton era, the answer to the question of whether Mueller's archive of evidence on obstruction is sufficient to support impeachment is an obvious "yes."

On the matter of collusion, Attorney General Barr has represented that Mueller only investigated a narrow legal issue within the broader question of whether the President of the United States committed acts of pre-election, transition-period, or post-inauguration collusion (acts arising to the level of a criminal offense and involving Russians, Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis, Egyptians, Qataris, or Bahrainis): whether Trump executed an implicit or explicit agreement with the Internet Research Agency (IRA) or Russian military intelligence (GRU) prior to these two entities' massive election-season propaganda and hacking campaigns, respectively. No one in media or anywhere else has ever accused Trump of doing this, so we've always assumed the answer to the question Mueller investigated would be "no." Frankly, that Mueller will need a hundred or two hundred pages to answer a question on which we previously thought there was no evidence at all tells us that, even if conspiracy couldn't be established beyond a reasonable doubt—as AG Barr has told us—there must be more evidence in support of the notion than we'd imagined.

What Trump has long stood accused of, however, are crimes quite different from conspiracy before-the-fact with the IRA and GRU: specifically, the Trump-Russia timeline reveals that the president is susceptible to criminal liability for bribery, money laundering, illegal solicitation of foreign campaign donations, aiding and abetting computer crimes, RICO offenses, and involvement in any of several crimes of fraud, including wire fraud, bank fraud, identity fraud, or the defrauding of the United States. All these offenses could be construed as "collusive" if they were committed, as the facts now in evidence suggest some of them may have been, in order to jointly benefit the Trumps (and their allies) and foreign nationals from any of the countries listed above.

The offenses I've just enumerated are now being investigated—often using euphemistic language, such as being described as "an investigation into the Trump inauguration"—by some combination of the following entities: the Southern District of New York; the Eastern District of New York; the Eastern District of Virginia; the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C.; the Central District of California; the offices of the Attorneys General for New York, Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia; the FBI; the CIA; the District Attorney for New York City; various House committees, including Ways and Means, Financial Services, Judiciary, Oversight, and Intelligence; the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; the Special Counsel's Office (which still has a grand jury seated that it says continues to work "robustly," and whose former staffers have been sent elsewhere to prosecute cases like the one against Roger Stone set for trial this fall); and at least one unnamed jurisdiction in which Trump's former deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, will be testifying.

We also know that evidence Mueller compiled is being used in several completed investigations about to go to trial, including the case against Bijan Kian that Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, will be testifying in this summer. Any or all of these investigations could lead to new indictments, and/or new revelations—perhaps through the emergence of new cooperating witnesses—that in time could lead to further new investigations and indictments. And of course the fact that the Southern District of New York has already named Trump an unindicted co-conspirator in felony campaign crimes—meaning that he would be under indictment and on bail or in pre-trial detention this very moment were he not the president—cannot be forgotten.

All of the crimes being investigated by the entities above are potentially impeachable offenses, with at least one—bribery—being specifically enumerated in the United States Constitution as an impeachable offense. Virtually all of the offenses, including the felony campaign crimes we already know Trump has been accused of by federal prosecutors, are more serious than the offenses the Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton for not long ago.

In short, the Mueller Report will be interesting for what it tells us about the evidence Congress will be considering in determining whether to impeach Donald J. Trump for obstruction of justice. It will be interesting for what it tells us about the evidence of a before-the-fact Trump-IRA or Trump-GRU conspiracy that heretofore we had no idea even arguably existed. And it will be interesting for what it doesn't say: the unnecessary grand jury redactions (which AG Barr could have avoided with simple, pro forma motions to several federal courts); the counterintelligence information that tells us whether the president is compromised by a foreign power but which we will not be allowed to see or even guess at; the "reputation" evidence that Barr has elided to avoid embarrassing people whose actions and observations may well have told us much about whether Trump is fit to be president or is, instead, a corrupt politician no different from those he derided in running for office in 2016; and the evidence of other ongoing federal investigations—a category of information that, as I've indicated here, is so vast that it could swallow the utility of the Mueller Report altogether.

If Americans keep all of the foregoing in mind in reading the Mueller Report, and in listening to coverage of the Mueller Report online and on television and in print, we will maintain a reasonable sense of how significant the Report actually is in the grand scheme of the Trump-Russia story. If we don't, we'll be fooled into thinking a movie still in its first act has actually reached a conclusion.

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​

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

The Mueller Report Is Just the Beginning | Opinion | Opinion