Despite the redactions, the truth of the Mueller report is coming to light
While global attention was understandably focused on Iran, the US-China trade talks, Venezuela and other dramatic developments last week, more information is seeping out about what happened surrounding the 2016 presidential election – and the news isn't good for the White House.
The redacted version of the Robert Mueller report released to Congress and the public was clear that it could not establish any unlawful conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence during the election.
But it specifically refused to clear the president of obstruction of justice, largely on the grounds that the Justice Department, somewhat controversially, believes that no serving president can be criminally charged; only impeached by Congress. The report said if it could have cleared the president, it would have, but it could not.
That has left unanswered what potentially criminal acts of obstruction was the Mueller report referring to, though 10 incidents were cited as problematic, and, more importantly, what such obstruction was intended to hide.
We may be inching closer to the truth.
Several key incidents on both counts involve President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, the retired General Michael Flynn.
It has been long established that, before Mr Trump was inaugurated, Mr Flynn had highly questionable conversations with the Russian ambassador, in which he encouraged Moscow to ignore new sanctions imposed by the still-serving administration of Barack Obama, and promised a new relationship with the incoming Trump administration.
Two key questions remain unanswered, at least in the public realm.
First, why did Mr Flynn make such an offer at all, especially when he was still a private citizen, and particularly given its obvious impropriety and dubious legality?
Second, why did he subsequently lie about these discussions to the FBI, which is a crime, and to others, when, as a former senior intelligence official, he knew full well that the US government was undoubtedly tracking the Russian ambassador’s phone calls?
And, last but hardly least, why does most of this information appear to have been redacted from the Mueller Report by Attorney General William Barr?
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered that the transcripts of Mr Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador be made public.
He also mandated the release of a voicemail message from Mr Trump's personal attorney emphasising the president’s continued affection for the fired Mr Flynn, even as he was preparing to co-operate with prosecutors.
The Mueller Report declined to make any judgment about Mr Trump's criminal culpability on obstruction of justice, except to emphasise that it could not exonerate the president. Yet within hours of receiving the report, Mr Barr did precisely that.
The new information emerging calls that snap judgment into even greater question.
It is obvious that the president is extremely concerned
In a memorandum written when he was still a private citizen last year, Mr Barr suggested that a president cannot commit obstruction of justice while conducting otherwise normal functions of the executive branch, because criminal intent would be almost impossible to prove. But, he did admit that a president could commit obstruction by "sabotaging a proceeding’s truth finding function" if he "knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborned perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony" and so on.
The problem for both Mr Trump and Mr Barr is that, apparently, Mr Flynn told prosecutors about several episodes in which "he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could have affected both his willingness to co-operate and the completeness of that co-operation".
In other words, precisely the exceptionally high standard the current attorney general has already set for presidential obstruction.
It also raises the question of who in Congress is involved in this possible obstruction. And why did Mr Flynn encourage an outspoken anti-Mueller congressman while he was supposedly co-operating with prosecutors?
All of this, obviously, also puts Mr Barr’s extensive redactions of the Mueller report in a new light. Speculation that he may have been concealing evidence of obstruction of justice now rests on much more solid ground.
Anyone who doesn't wonder why any president would be trying so hard to keep his former associates from co-operating with law enforcement and prosecutors simply isn't thinking.
Meanwhile, it is obvious that the president is extremely concerned.
On Friday, he tweeted: “It now seems the General Flynn was under investigation long before was common knowledge. It would have been impossible for me to know this but, if that was the case, and with me being one of two people who would become president, why was I not told so that I could make a change?”
But, of course, he was warned, multiple times, about Mr Flynn, by Mr Obama, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Representative Elijah Cummings, and, not least, then-FBI director James Comey.
Why would Mr Trump seek Mr Flynn's silence long after his resignation and agreement to co-operate with prosecutors? It is hard not to assume he was trying to contain a potential crisis.
The attorney general’s conclusion that there was no presidential obstruction of justice, even by his own extraordinarily narrow standards, is looking increasingly shaky. And Mr Trump seems to know it.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: May 18, 2019 03:02 PM