The first thing to note about the Mueller report is just how contentious it is. It isn’t a set of findings so much as an assertion of what the findings might have been if only there had been more evidence. It is like a closing argument in a criminal case already dismissed for lack of evidence but in which the prosecutor is determined to redeem what he can of his case. Mueller turns to a variety of strategies: hectoring repetition; the use of extraneous detail to add heft to flimsy assertion; and a resort to insinuation and innuendo to prejudice the reader against those who have escaped the dock.
Papadopoulos Again and Again
Ever since the debunking of Trump-Russia dirt paid for by the Democrats and compiled by the opposition firm Fusion GPS, government officials and conspiracists have insisted that the Steele dossier had nothing to do with launching the investigation. The story is that the FBI flew into action after learning that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had made an alarming statement to an Australian diplomat in a London bar, telling him about Russian intentions to interfere with the U.S. election.
From the first page of his report, the special counsel is eager to establish the narrative that that Papadopoulos, not Steele, sparked the initial investigation. Mueller writes that in May 2016 “Papadopoulos had suggested to a representative of [a] foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
But it’s not enough to say it once. Come page 6, Mueller writes, “Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to candidate Clinton.”
Mueller repeats this claim nearly word for word again on pages 81, 89, and 93.
At least page 192 offers a hint of variation: The FBI “approached Papadopoulos for an interview” because of “his suggestion to a foreign government representative that Russia had indicated that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to candidate Clinton.”
Such relentless repetition might be dismissed as lazy cut-and-paste writing. But repetition is an ancient and effective tool of rhetoric. The Greeks called it epimone; the Romans, commoratio. It can be used subtly and powerfully, as in “Brutus is an honorable man," or it can be employed in a clumsy effort to pound home a weak claim, as in “Papadopoulos suggested…that the Trump Campaign…”
What makes the claim weak?
The problem starts with “Papadopoulos suggested.” What exactly did he say? “Suggested” implies he expressed himself indirectly. The report’s use of that squishy verb all six times it refers to the conversation is an admission that Papadopoulos did not directly make the explosive claim that allegedly spurred the FBI into action.
The next part of the sentence is not only vague, but misleading – “Papadopoulos suggested … that the Trump campaign had received indications.”
This implies that information allegedly given to Papadopoulos – an adviser to the campaign – was shared with the entire campaign. This is especially misleading because the report later says it found no evidence that Papadopoulos told anyone else on the campaign about the emails.
And then there’s the descriptor “received indications,” which is even more amorphous than “suggested.” An “indication” could be anything from a light flashing Morse code to one of the grifters in “The Sting” putting a finger to the side of his nose. If Papadopoulos was told something, why not simply write he “was told”? The downside of the simple construction, from a prosecutor’s point of view, is that it lacks the implication that something furtive and sneaky is going on. “Receiving indications” by contrast, sounds suitably shady.
Where did those indications come from? The “Russian government,” according to the special counsel’s report. Finally, a precise and concrete claim. Unfortunately, it is also false. The source of his information was Joseph Mifsud, whom the special counsel describes as a “London-based professor who had connections to Russia and traveled to Moscow in April 2016.” There is a difference between someone with unspecified “connections to Russia” and the “Russian government.”
The Mueller report makes another incorrect claim when it states the Russian government offered to “assist the [Trump] Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.”
There is no evidence that Papadopoulos said anything about a plan to “assist” Trump through “anonymous” action to the man in the London bar – whom the report oddly refers to as a “representative of a foreign government” when everyone knows he is Alexander Downer. As Downer told The Australian newspaper in April 2018, Papadopoulos “mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging.”
Put these corrections all together and the special counsel’s oft-repeated statement – “Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton” – should actually read “Papadopoulos said to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that a professor who had traveled to Russia had told him Russia had damaging information about Hillary Clinton and might release it before the election.” This latter version isn’t just a far more accurate representation of what Papadopoulos said; it is also far less suggestive of any wrongdoing. But of course, if there’s less suggestion of wrongdoing there’s also less justification for the FBI to have taken the extreme step of investigating a presidential campaign.
Read the whole thing.