Over 448 pages of Robert Mueller’s final report, nearly 1,000 words, sentences and full paragraphs are blacked out.
Now, the race is on to remove those black bars.
Like pages torn out of a novel, the redacted sections of the special counsel’s findings present the ultimate cliffhangers. Mueller obsessives think these passages could shed light on lingering mysteries, such as who Donald Trump asked to look into WikiLeaks’ plans to dump Democratic emails, or what happened after Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., rejected a voluntary interview with Mueller. Then there’s the riddle of 12 redacted cases that Mueller turned over to other offices for further investigation.
Determined to reveal the full story behind these puzzling episodes, efforts are underway in courtrooms, Congress — and, of course, the Twittersphere — to glean what the lawyers for the Justice Department and Mueller’s office withheld from the special counsel’s findings. Democrats, transparency advocates and media organizations argue that it’s imperative that the public see everything — nothing less than the security of future elections is at stake, they say.
The redactions are “a bit jarring” said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is suing to see the entire report, as well as the Russia investigation’s underlying evidence.
“We thought a lot of significant material was withheld,” he added, material Congress and the public need to ward off foreign interference in the 2020 elections.
In the coming months, Rotenberg and others will be pressing to get that information released.
House Democrats have subpoenaed the full report and are headed for a court showdown with Trump’s Justice Department. And EPIC along with BuzzFeed sued to unseal the full report under the Freedom of Information Act.
Oddly enough, Roger Stone might have the best chance at seeing more of the report. The longtime Trump associate has mounted a legal bid to see the unredacted document as he heads toward a trial this fall on charges that he lied to Congress and obstructed their Russia probe.
Republicans — and some legal experts — argue the full report won’t change the public’s perception of the Mueller investigation. Even Mueller’s prosecutors, who were upset with how Attorney General William Barr initially portrayed their conclusions in a four-page summary letter in March, feel comfortable with the redactions, according to a source close to some of the special counsel’s attorneys.
“Ninety percent is in there, especially on the obstruction stuff,” said the source.
“Let’s be honest. The reality is any fair reading of this report is really deeply damaging to the president. A little more damage doesn’t really change the calculus,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the nonprofit R Street Institute and former senior counsel to Clinton-era independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
“I’ve been highly critical of Mr. Barr on a lot of things, but I don’t think he overdid it on this case,” Rosenzweig added. “I don’t think there’s that much left to be teased.”
But that’s not stopping the fights.
The most prominent one is on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders last week rejected Barr’s offer to privately review a “less-redacted” version of the Mueller report at DOJ headquarters in Washington. They responded with a subpoena, escalating a battle that appears headed for federal court.
“My committee needs and is entitled to the full version of the report and the underlying evidence consistent with past practice," said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, whose committee is pushing to get the full document.
“Even the redacted version of the report outlines serious instances of wrongdoing by President Trump and some of his closest associates,” the New York Democrat added. “It now falls to Congress to determine the full scope of that alleged misconduct and to decide what steps we must take going forward.”
Barr’s offer, which permitted a select number of senior lawmakers and their aides to read the document and take notes as long as they didn’t remove them from DOJ, satisfied Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel. The Georgia congressman praised Barr for the “extraordinary accommodations” that allowed him to see a version of the Mueller report that contained about half of the redactions that were blacked out of the public version.
“Both volumes reinforce the principal conclusions made last month,” Collins said, noting that this version only had four redactions in the obstruction section and a GOP committee aide added covered fewer than six lines of text.
The now-consolidated BuzzFeed and EPIC cases plodding through the courts represent the most direct path for the public to see the Mueller report. U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton criticized DOJ during a hearing earlier this month for not being transparent enough with the public about the Russia probe findings. Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush, will hold a status conference on the two lawsuits next Thursday.
EPIC has asked the judge to conduct his own review of the unredacted Mueller report to determine whether DOJ is being faithful with its representations of what can and can’t be released. And the organization has also argued that redactions made to protect “ongoing matters” — a reasoning given for at least some of the redactions on 176 pages — isn’t typically allowed as an excuse to reject FOIA requests.
“At some point,” said Barbara McQuade, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, “the ongoing cases will no longer be ongoing, and information relating to those matters should be disclosed.”
But it’s far from clear how Walton will handle the Mueller report going forward in the face of DOJ resistance.
Stone, the flamboyant GOP operative, is also making a personal bid to see the document. His lawyers filed the request earlier this month as part of a larger bid to dismiss his case. While Stone does not have an inherent right to see the report, McQuade said he is entitled to information that might be relevant to his defense.
“The Special Counsel Report may be of political interest to many. It may be of commercial interest to others. It may be of public interest to some. But for Roger Stone, the Special Counsel’s Report is a matter of protecting his liberty,” Stone’s lawyers argued in a 57-page motion.
The two sides will meet to discuss Stone’s case at a status hearing on Tuesday, and DOJ’s formal response to the dismissal motion is due next Friday. But it’s unclear whether Stone’s specific ask to see the unredacted report will come up at all.
In total, the Mueller report contains 954 redactions, nearly half of which are meant to protect “ongoing matters,” or live investigations, according to a POLITICO analysis of the redacted findings. The second-largest chunk, 355, are redactions of grand jury information that legally has to remain private in most cases. Other redactions were intended to block the disclosure of classified investigative tactics and shield “peripheral third parties” from “reputational” damage.
Some of the most intriguing redactions hint at active law enforcement probes that Mueller spun off to other DOJ offices.
In one section, the special counsel’s team says it found evidence of potential criminal activity outside its jurisdiction in 14 cases. But the report blacks out the specific subject in a dozen of the cases, which have been referred to other parts of DOJ and the FBI.
Other redactions simply hide potentially juicy details about stories the public has long known about.
Take the story of WikiLeaks. While it’s widely known that the activist organization released stolen Democratic emails during the election, a redaction in the Mueller report passage on WikiLeaks withholds specifics about how the Trump campaign “privately sought information” about WikiLeaks plans. Trump himself apparently discussed the possibility of upcoming email dumps with someone whose name is withheld.
Then there’s Donald Trump Jr., the subject of intense speculation regarding a possible Mueller. Dozens of items are blacked out in a section describing discussions that occurred before, during and after a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised to deliver dirt to the Trump campaign about Hillary Clinton.
Another redaction hides the fallout from Trump Jr.’s refusal to participate in a voluntary interview with the special counsel. The edit has set off speculation whether the blacked out section explains if Mueller tried to subpoena Trump Jr., or whether the president’s son invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Trump Jr.’s lawyer hasn’t commented on the matter, though Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, tamped down talk that the redaction deals with the Fifth Amendment. “I can tell you I have no knowledge that anybody took the Fifth,” Giuliani told POLITICO.
Mueller in his final report said Trump Jr. and the other Trump campaign officials in the meeting, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, didn’t face charges because the special counsel lacked evidence to prove they took the meeting with the general knowledge they might ultimately be committing a crime and also that the promised opposition research didn’t necessarily qualify as an illegal donation.
Veterans of independent counsel investigations warned that document fights can drag on for years. Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who has long covered national security matters, noted ongoing efforts to obtain interview materials from a George W. Bush-era investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA operative.
And just last fall, a federal judge ordered the partial public release of a once-secret “road map” that Watergate investigators made for Congress that summarized the evidence they had uncovered against President Richard Nixon.
“It’ll be probably 40 years before we get all of the Mueller report,” Wheeler said. “Eventually, it will all come out, but it’s going to be some time.”
Jordyn Hermani contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine