PolitiFact’s Mueller Report Book Club, Volume 1

Sara O'Brien / Poynter
Sara O'Brien / Poynter

Editor’s note: PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan has been hosting the Muller Report book club via PolitiFact’s weekly email newsletter. The book club’s first four weeks of material are below. Read the book club's final two weeks of material, as well as the introduction of the book club

Week 1: Getting ready

We’ll be reading the report together over the next several weeks. We aim to provide guidance for upcoming readings, perspective on previous reading and questions for discussion. 

First things first: Get a copy of the report. Be sure to get the report in a format you like, because it is long, and you’ll want a comfortable reading experience. I decided to buy a paperback copy of the report published by the Washington Post. Online, you can print out or download a copy of the report for free. There are also versions of the report available via Kindle, and Audible offers a free audiobook if you’d rather listen to the report.

Next, take a look at the report’s table of contents. The Mueller report is divided into two volumes. The first volume deals with Russia’s interference into the election of 2016. That includes three subparts: Russia’s disinformation campaign on social media; its hacking of emails and their public release; and the Russian government’s contacts with the Trump campaign. The second volume focuses on the Trump administration and its reaction to the investigation. It's a long chain of events that includes President Donald Trump defending National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, and Trump’s efforts to have Mueller himself removed.

Feeling ready? Dive in! Your first assignment is to read pages 1-65. (These are the page numbers of the actual report; your copy may have additional page numbers, so look carefully.) This week’s reading includes the following sections: "Introduction to Volume I," "Executive Summary to Volume I," "The Special Counsel’s Investigation," "Russian ‘Active Measures’ Social Media Campaign," "Russian Hacking and Dumping Operations."

What to expect from this week’s readings: The introduction and executive summary include a brief overview of the report’s major findings on Russian interference. It then moves into a more detailed report about Russia’s specific operations on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Fairly early on, you’ll run into some redactions in the report; you have no choice but to skip over those inked-out passages. (We’ll discuss redactions in more detail next week.) The report also documents how Russia’s agents broke into email systems and stole emails. The emails were then distributed to American journalists via disguised websites and through Wikileaks. Finally, we’ll read about how Russian agents attempted to access state and local government computers with an aim toward infecting election computer systems with malware and other malicious software. A heavily redacted portion of the report documents the Trump campaign’s contacts with Wikileaks.

Week 2: The Mueller report begins

Our readings this week included the report’s opening, pages 1 to 65. This part focuses on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Documenting election interference: I’ve followed allegations of election interference for a long time now, and I still I found this section fascinating. It was a new experience to read in detail about exactly what the Russians did. 

The report’s key findings, though, are stated bluntly at the start: Russia did interfere; it favored Donald Trump and disparaged Hillary Clinton; it interfered through a social media campaign; and its agents broke into computer systems of Democrats, stole documents, then released them to the media.  

One of the biggest questions before the report came out was whether the Trump campaign actually worked with the Russians to sway the election, a.k.a "collusion." The report is clear that investigators did NOT find that. The report’s language here is complex but very precise:

"Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

In other words, if there were coordination, the investigators didn't find it.

Reading through redactions: The opening sections of the report about Russian interference are heavily redacted, with big black bars covering the words. The reasons for the redactions are categorized as "Harm to Ongoing Matter" (abbreviated to "HOM"); "Personal Privacy" ("PP"); "Investigative Technique" ("IT"); and "Grand Jury." Generally speaking, these redactions are what they sound like: They’re aimed at protecting ongoing investigations and prosecutions, as well as concealing how intelligence agencies gather information or protecting personal privacy. Attorney General William Barr said he worked with the special counsel to decide on what was redacted. (PolitiFact reported more details about the redactions in April.)

I wondered if these early pages are so heavily redacted because more prosecutions of Russian agents are coming. That could be the "Harm to Ongoing Matter." Or, maybe it’s more mundane: Investigators just don’t want the Russians to know how they know.

A reader question: Bettie emailed me this week to ask about page 23. It says that internal Russian documents instructed the Russian team to support Trump. The passage reads, "Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump - we support them)."

Bettie asked: What’s up with that? Doesn’t Bernie Sanders hate Trump? And Trump calls Sanders "Crazy Bernie." The Mueller report doesn’t explain it, so we emailed a few experts asking for more context.

Overall, they said we can’t know for sure what the Russians were thinking. But it seems likely that they just wanted to defeat Hillary Clinton.

"The hostility stems from a sense that Clinton favored interference in the Russian elections including in 1996, in support of Boris Yeltsin, and in 2012, in an effort to undermine Putin’s re-election. Indeed, the United States has been engaged in widespread election interference for decades," said Christopher Preble, an expert in defense and foreign policy at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Bret Schafer, who studies digital disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, had this to say: "Broadly speaking, I think it’s also important to stress that modern Russia is kind of ideologically amorphous. They are more than happy to support either side, so long as that side is seen to be beneficial to their short-term objectives."

Social media specifics: For all its redactions, the report still has rich, detailed descriptions about what was happening on social media. The Russians created imaginary political groups, pretending to be anti-immigration, pro tea party, pro Muslim or activists for Black Lives Matter. The Russians bought ads on Facebook showing Hillary Clinton with a caption that said, "If one day God lets this liar enter the White House as a president — that day would be a real national tragedy." They pretended to represent the Tennessee Republican Party or Trump supporters on Twitter, and they got prominent Americans to retweet them. (Re-tweeters included Fox News host Sean Hannity and former Ambassador Michael McFaul.)

Hacking and dumping: The report details that Russian intelligence agents (the report refers to them as the GRU) stole hundreds of thousands of documents from both email accounts and computer networks and released them online, via online pseudonyms like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, as well as through Julian Assange’s group, Wikileaks. The releases were timed to undermine the Clinton campaign. The Trump campaign was watching the releases, often with great interest, but much of the interaction between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks are redacted.

Questions for discussion:

1. Given the level of detail in the Mueller report, do you believe it’s a certainty that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election? If not, why not? Do you think the public will stop questioning whether Russia actually interfered? Or do you expect a national debate to continue?

2. What do you think of the report’s redactions? When should the government legitimately conceal information from the public? Were you comfortable with the report’s redactions, or did they make you suspicious that important matters are still being concealed?

3. Does the report’s level of detail about interference on Facebook and Twitter make you hesitant to trust what you see on social media?

4. The report documents how Russia stole campaign documents from Democrats then leaked them to the media. Do you recall reading news stories about these documents in 2016? Now that you know the documents were stolen, does it change how you think of those news reports? How do you think journalists should handle stolen documents? 

What’s next: For next week, please read pages 66 to 173, "Russian Government Links to and Contacts with the Trump Campaign." This is a bit longer than what we read this week, so allow a little more time for it. 

Week 3: Trump campaign contacts with Russia

This week, we finished pages 66 to 173, "Russian Government Links to and Contacts with the Trump Campaign." The report starts by saying that there were many contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 election cycle, but Mueller’s team did not find that they coordinated. 

Trump Moscow: I was surprised by the level of detail here about how Donald Trump was pursuing business opportunities in Russia -- specifically, the building of a Trump Tower in Moscow -- while at the same time telling the American people he had no business ties to Russia. Much of the action revolves around Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen.

The report suggests the key players saw this deception as just a way of doing business. In one passage, the report recounts that Cohen "did not consider the political import of the Trump Moscow project to the 2016 election at the time … However, Cohen recalled conversations with Trump in which the candidate suggested that his campaign would be a significant ‘infomercial’ for Trump-branded properties."

Manafort & Page: Trump’s campaign staffers do not come off well in the report. Paul Manafort and Carter Page, in particular, seem to view campaign work as just a way to make lots of money. Page makes a speech in Russia where he seems to disparage democratic values, saying that the U.S. government has an "often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change." Meanwhile, Manafort was giving information to Russia-friendly Ukrainians, sharing internal polling data and discussing which U.S. states were campaign battlegrounds. The report says that Manafort was being sued by Ukrainians, and he hoped sharing information would make the lawsuits go away. 

The big June 2016 meeting: One of the biggest stories in the media has been a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the Russians, Donald Trump Jr., and other campaign staff. The report takes some of the drama out of this meeting, suggesting the campaign accepted the meeting request out of ignorance or incompetence. Jared Kushner even tells his staff to fake a call to him to get him out of a meeting that he viewed as a "waste of time." 

Michael Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador: The incident that led to Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s short-lived national security adviser was a December 2016 phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn subsequently lied to the FBI about the contact. This part of the report doesn’t detail Flynn’s denials, but it does describe the call. I was surprised to read that many people on Trump’s transition team knew that Flynn was talking to Kislyak. So why would he lie to investigators about it later? It seems obvious that others would corroborate that the call had taken place. We’ll see if this is explained in more detail in the report’s next volume. 

Questions for discussion:

1. What are your main takeaways about how Trump’s campaign team handled themselves with regard to Russia? What do you think about their motives and intentions? 

2. Campaign staffers’ desire to make money is a theme of this section. Do you think this is unique to the Trump campaign? Or do you think all presidential campaigns include people whose primary motivation is to get rich? 

3. If Trump thought the 2016 campaign would be a good "infomercial" for his business, what does that say about how important celebrity has become to U.S. politics? Do you think Americans look to politicians to entertain us rather than to run government? 

What’s next: For next week, please read pages 174-199 (Prosecution and Declination Decisions). This will conclude volume I.

Here’s what some of you had to say about last week’s questions. 

Given the level of detail in the Mueller report, do you believe it’s a certainty that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election? If not, why not? Do you think the public will stop questioning whether Russia actually interfered? Or do you expect a national debate to continue?

"When Trump the chaos candidate started gaining traction with voters, his unorthodox approach fit perfectly with the Russian plan. That he actually won the election, against all odds, was a nice fringe benefit for Moscow, who, for less than the cost of a fighter jet or battle tank, succeeded in paralyzing US politics and further dividing US society. While the debate over the significance of Russian activities will continue, sadly I suspect that many Americans are getting bored with it and are ready to move on."

"The American public stops questioning everything as soon as it moves off the front page or the evening newscast. For the most part, they don’t even remember last night’s news. I do not think the ‘national debate’ exists." 

"I don't understand how so many people (both elected officials and people I know personally) are ok with whatever cheating went on, as long as they get the result they want. This terrifies me."

What do you think of the report’s redactions? When should the government legitimately conceal information from the public? Were you comfortable with the report’s redactions, or did they make you suspicious that important matters are still being concealed?

"It's legitimate that items can be hidden from the public; however, Congress has the right to know if they want to legitimately carry out oversight duties. There can certainly be closed-door meetings to reveal the redacted items." 

"I think some of the redactions are legitimate and important but the ‘Personal Privacy’ (‘PP’) is utter nonsense. So, what, evidence of criminal behavior from the president of the U.S., should be hidden, so as not to hurt his reputation? Give me a break!"

"I believe that the redactions have a purpose. I do not believe though, that William Barr can be trusted to work on behalf of the American people and I have concerns that the redactions may have more to do with protecting the president. I wish that Mueller would have been able to have done the redactions without William Barr's assistance." 

Does the report’s level of detail about interference on Facebook and Twitter make you hesitant to trust what you see on social media?

"I have learned in general over time to not automatically trust a lot of what I read on FB or Twitter. Everyone should take the time to try to verify information, sources, and photos as best they can.... especially now."

"I consider social media to be the equivalent of walking down a dark alley, in a bad neighborhood, alone, at night."

"I’ve always approached info on social media cautiously! It’s a great place to keep up with friends and family, but not to get the news!"

The report documents how Russia stole campaign documents from Democrats then leaked them to the media. Do you recall reading news stories about these documents in 2016? Now that you know the documents were stolen, does it change how you think of those news reports? How do you think journalists should handle stolen documents? 

"These questions raise tough issues, primarily because journalists publicizing and contextualizing stolen documents in the past have shined a light on government or individuals' misdeeds."

"I do recall reading of them, and I never could connect the dots until I read Mueller Report. What a good journalist is HE! I now look back on them as a wide scattering of information by which I made none of the linkages that Mueller made."

"I did not understand what was happening when the news reported the stories in 2016. I pay more attention now, but I suspect many of us just didn't really get it at the time. Journalists at the very least should explain, in general, that the documents were stolen." 

Week 4: Deciding to prosecute — or not

This week, we read the final section of Volume I, "Prosecution and Declination Decisions," a summary of what offenses the special counsel's office decided to prosecute as a result of its investigations into the 2016 election. 

The report notes that two major indictments of over a dozen people were issued in February and July of 2018. Most of the defendants are Russian nationals and remain at large. Large sections of the report are redacted that deal with the hacking and dumping of documents. I assumed the redactions here might deal with Wikileaks and its contacts with the Trump campaign, but there's no way to know for sure. 

Was any Trump campaign official acting as a foreign agent for Russia? After documenting many contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, the report suggests that no campaign officials were acting on behalf of Russia (or, at least, there was no evidence). Here, the report gets specific: "In particular, the Office did not find evidence likely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that campaign officials such as Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page acted as agents of the Russian government — or at its direction, control or request —during the relevant time period."

Did the Trump campaign know what it was doing when it met with Russian agents on June 9? One of the most interesting sections this week is called "Willfullness," where the special counsel considers whether the campaign knew it was potentially breaking campaign finance law by accepting opposition research from foreign agents. Here again, the report seems to let the Trump team off the hook, noting that attempts to conceal the meeting "may reflect an intention to avoid political consequences rather than any prior knowledge of illegality."

This week's question for discussion:

Now that you've finished Volume I, what is your main takeaway on Russia's interference in the 2016 election? What do you think it means for the 2020 election? 

What’s next: Next week we’ll start discussing Volume II, which looks at whether President Donald Trump or his campaign obstructed the special counsel's investigation. Please read pages 1- 61, which includes "Introduction to Volume II," "Executive Summary to Volume II," "Background Legal and Evidentiary Principles," and "Factual Results of the Obstruction Investigation" through the "President’s Reaction to Public Confirmation of the FBI’s Russia Investigation." (We'll stop when we get to events leading up to the termination of FBI Director James Comey.)

If you're enjoying the reading, keep going! We'll soon finish our reading of the report with a longer-than-usual section that takes us all the way to the end.