The Mueller Report: Questions, Answered and Unanswered

The release of the redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's confidential "Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election," has addressed important questions and left others unanswered. (A public version of the report can be seen here).

Here's our take on where this story is headed:


Are there revelations in the report that enough people might consider evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors" to add political pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move toward impeachment?

Possibly.

The Mueller report asserts that the special counsel's team did not find evidence that President Trump or anyone associated with his campaign helped the Russians interfere in the election, and Attorney General William Barr has ruled that Trump will not be prosecuted for obstruction of Mueller's investigation.

But impeachment is a political, not a legal, process.

In fact, on the question of the Trump campaign's coordination with Russia, Mueller wrote the investigation was "materially impaired" by witnesses who lied, refused to testify, deleted emails, or used encrypted apps to communicate. As a result, Mueller added this crucial comment: "The Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report."

On the question of obstruction of justice, Mueller notes on page 182 of the report that "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state… We are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Further, the report states that "we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice." Many Democratic lawmakers will view that as an invitation, maybe an exhortation, to act.

Pelosi has worked hard in recent weeks to beat back pressure from Democrats to push for impeachment because she believes such a move would damage her party politically. But there are many details in the Mueller report that will make that more difficult.

Where is Robert Mueller?

During his press conference before the report's release, Barr said, "I have no objection to Bob Mueller personally testifying" before Congress. House Democrats will subpoena his testimony, so it appears the world will finally hear directly from the Mueller report's lead author.

Does the report include specifics of Russian interference in the 2016 US election that can help the US (and other countries) safeguard the integrity of future elections?

More important than the fate of any particular president is the integrity of the elections that elevate them.

The Mueller report asserts that the Russian government interfered "in sweeping and systematic fashion" with the 2016 US presidential election. It details efforts by organizations affiliated with the Russian government and military to create discord inside the United States by using the Internet and social media to inject disinformation into the American political bloodstream. It also describes how they stole documents and emails and used both Russian outlets and the transparency website Wikileaks to publish them on the Internet.

Attorney General Barr said on Thursday that a select bipartisan group of US lawmakers will have access to a version of the report in which counterintelligence-related redactions have been removed. The details of Russian interference will allow lawmakers to address future threats and to pressure the Trump administration to help.

But Russia is not the only actor using these tools, and the US is far from the only target. All elections are increasingly vulnerable to disinformation campaigns that originate outside their borders—and, increasingly, from inside them, as well. We can't know how many specifics of these findings US intelligence agencies will share with their counterparts in other countries.

The Test for Rule of Law

The broader unanswered question is how well American political institutions will respond to the series of noisy political and legal confrontations we can expect in coming months. Democrats will file suit to ask courts to order the release of all sorts of documents related to Donald Trump—on the Mueller report as well as other investigations of the president, his election campaign, his businesses, and his White House. Trump will do all he can to thwart these efforts.

Will most Americans accept that courts have based their rulings on the law rather than on perceived political motivations? Will the president and his opponents accept the legitimacy of these rulings and comply with them? Public polarization intensified by the 2020 election campaign won't help.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.