Seldom has a report in Washington been so vigorously debated before its release. After nearly two years of speculation over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, a redacted version of his final report is expected to be made public Thursday by Attorney General William Barr.
Until then, we have just two pieces of real information in our pockets: Barr’s four-page summary of the report’s conclusion, and Barr’s testimony last week, during which he said he would release as much of the report as legally allowed after redacting certain portions, with color coding to explain the justifications for each redaction.
While we wait, some things are already clear. Here are key issues to watch for when the report appears, and a suggested list of search terms that could help uncover potential surprises.
The four big issues
Ahead of the report, four issues loom largest: Russia’s election interference, the Trump campaign’s activities, and the questions of whether the president obstructed justice — whether a sitting president can be indicted.
- Obstruction of justice. Did the president obstruct justice? For many, this is the largest, potentially earth-shaking issue in the report. Barr’s summary indicated that Mueller was not able to conclude whether Trump’s actions could be construed as obstruction of justice. Instead, the special counsel has laid out arguments on each side. Look for: What is the evidence for and against obstruction?
- Can you indict a sitting president? Related to the discussion of obstruction, there are heated legal questions about whether the Justice Department can press criminal charges against any sitting president. Look for: The supernova issues: Did Mueller determine whether any sitting president can be indicted? Did that influence, or even dictate, his lack of conclusion over whether this president could be prosecuted for obstruction?
- The Russians. What did the Russians do to try to influence and manipulate the 2016 election? Look for: Extensive discussion of cyber-hacking operations as well as Russian use of social media to distort or amplify specific public sentiment around the 2016 race. Also, pay attention to any direct ties to the Kremlin and Putin.
- The campaign. What, if any, interaction did President Donald Trump’s campaign have with Russians involved in election interference? Barr’s summary states that Mueller’s investigation, “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” But that is a limited statement. We do not know the degree to which Russians may have targeted Trump campaign officials and how they handled those interactions. Look for: Key campaign-Russia interactions, including the five below.
The five big moments
Here are five interactions or events that may be significant in the report.
- Communication between Trump and Jeff Sessions, 2017. What, if anything, did the president say privately to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the FBI’s Russia investigation? And what did Trump say about the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Sessions recused himself from the investigation in March 2017, amid heavy pressure from the president to remain in charge of the probe. There are also questions about how Sessions and the president interacted with Russian officials, especially Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the U.S.
- Trump Tower meeting in New York, June 2016. The June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower, which included Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and a Russian attorney, dominated headlines when it was revealed a year later. Those involved initially said the meeting focused on Russian adoptions or Russian sanctions law, not the campaign. But Donald Trump, Jr., received emails ahead of the meeting promising damaging material on Hillary Clinton. What does Mueller say happened? And did the president know about the Russian offer?
- Air Force One, July 2017. After news of the Trump Tower meeting broke, President Trump, on board Air Force One, dictated a statement for his son to the New York Times. His attorney later admitted the president’s role, despite initially, and repeatedly, denying it. Within days, it was clear that the statement did not describe the meeting fully, though Trump’s attorneys said it was accurate.
- Trump Tower Moscow plan, 2016. There is open debate over how seriously then-candidate Trump pursued what would have been a mega-business deal for a Trump Tower Moscow in 2016. The project is seen as an important indication of potential Trump conflicts of interest and possible attempts to cover them up.
- Republican National Convention, July 2016. As Republicans gathered to nominate Trump for the presidency, the party made a late change in its platform to water down an anti-Russia stance. Delegates have said this was pushed by the Trump campaign, but Trump officials at the time repeatedly denied it. Kislyak was also at the convention, where he spoke with Sessions and other campaign officials.
12 key search terms to help guide you through the report
- Donald Trump or the president. How much of the report focuses on the president himself?
- Obstruction. The potential crime that Mueller didn’t rule on one way or the other, according to Barr’s summary letter.
- Conspiracy. The initial focus of the FBI’s investigation: whether the Trump campaign conspired or colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
- Vladimir Putin or president of Russia. Does the president of Russia appear in the report?
- James Comey. What did Mueller find or conclude about the president’s firing of and interactions with FBI director James Comey?
- Michael Cohen. Was the president’s former attorney helpful to Mueller? Does Cohen’s allegations of campaign violations appear in the report or does the document push back those public allegations against Trump?
- Michael Flynn. What does the report say about the former national security adviser, who was one of Mueller’s first cooperating witnesses?
- Christopher Steele or dossier. The so-called Steele dossier, a collection of allegations about Trump, sparked some initial FBI suspicion of the Trump campaign but it is seen by others as a fraudulent file meant to undermine him. Does Mueller mention it, or its allegations, at all?
- Facebook. How was the social media giant used and targeted by Russians? And does Mueller point to any flaws in company’s security or policies?
- Twitter or tweet. Did messages on social media, by the president or anyone else, affect Mueller’s investigation?
- Voting machine or state election or election system. To what degree did Russians attempt to, or succeed in, breaking into any voting infrastructure in the states?
- Inauguration. Did Mueller write anything about investigations into foreign attempts to donate money to the president’s inauguration?
Reminder: If you want to check what we know currently, our Giant Russia Timeline is a good resource. It is giant, but also approachable and reader-friendly.