clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Justice Department has released the Mueller report. Here’s how to read it.

A reading guide to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report (as redacted by Attorney General William Barr).

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election has finally been released and posted on the Justice Department’s website — but with some redactions.

The main text of the report is nearly 400 pages long. It’s divided into two volumes. Volume I deals with the investigation into collaboration (“collusion”) between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Volume II addresses whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice while in office.

Before the report was released, Attorney General Bill Barr gave a press conference summarizing his assessment of Mueller’s conclusions — giving the impression that he was trying to spin the report in favor of Trump before anyone could read it.

The attorney general announced nearly four weeks ago that Mueller had concluded his investigation, that he’d bring no further charges, and that he had no more indictments under seal. However, Mueller also did hand off several unresolved matters to other Justice Department offices for further investigation.

Mueller was appointed in May 2017, and during his 22-month investigation he filed charges against six former Trump advisers and 26 Russian nationals. But the special counsel did not bring any charge alleging criminal collusion between Trump associates and Russians to interfere with the election.

The special counsel did not bring any charges on obstruction of justice, but he also refused to “exonerate” Trump — raising questions about just what Mueller believed about the president’s conduct, and whether he agreed with Barr’s conclusions that Trump was simply frustrated with the investigation creating a “cloud” over his presidency.

So here’s what you need to know about the report’s background, what to expect about it, and the biggest questions to keep in mind when reading it.

When was the Mueller report released?

Thursday morning, shortly after 11 am, the text of the report was made public on the Justice Department website. A copy of the report — both the public version and a less-redacted private version — were sent to Congress around that time.

What’s in the Mueller report

According to the regulation under which Mueller was appointed, his final report is broadly supposed to focus on explaining his “prosecution or declination decisions” — that is, why he decided to charge certain people but not others.

Mueller’s report is divided into two main parts, Volume I and Volume II. Volume I covers Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Volume IIcovers potential obstruction of justice by President Trump.

On election interference, Mueller filed charges against two groups of Russians, related to the hacking and leaking of Democrats’ emails and to a social media propaganda operation. But “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller wrote. While Barr said in his press conference that the Trump campaign could not be charged with any of the hacking-related crimes because it didn’t aid in the hacks themselves, the report does describe several interactions between people in Trump’s circle and people affiliated with the Russian government — including a 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Trump associates took on the belief they were receiving private information that would help the campaign.

The obstruction of justice section is about whether Trump tried to interfere with the Russia investigation since taking office. The report examines ten episodes that Mueller believed might indicate obstruction of justice.

Oddly, Mueller declined to issue a determination on whether Trump’s conduct here was criminal, writing that the report does not “conclude” Trump committed a crime but that “it also does not exonerate him.”

Barr said in his initial letter that in his view, Mueller’s evidence was “not sufficient to establish” that Trump obstructed justice. That characterization alarmed some Mueller teem members, who felt Barr’s letter to Congress didn’t properly describe “derogatory information” they’d unearthed, according to CNN.

What is redacted in the Mueller report?

There are four categories of redactions in the report: 1) Grand jury material, 2) information related to ongoing investigations, 3) information that could compromise intelligence sources and methods, 4) material that could compromise the privacy of peripheral third parties. Barr has testified that each redaction will be identified by one of these categories.

Before the report was released, it was speculated that President Trump could try to block certain information in the report from release by asserting executive privilege. But Barr did not submit it to the White House for a privilege review, though he did allow Trump’s lawyers to view the final (redacted) version of the report before it went out to the public.

How to read the Mueller report

There are several key questions:

1) Was there “no collusion” — or “not enough evidence of collusion”? Did Mueller affirmatively conclude there was no evidence of a conspiracy between Trump associates and Russia to interfere with the election, or just that he just didn’t have enough evidence to prove one in court?

The lack of charges on this topic could mean there was nothing there. It could also reflect a murkier situation involving lack of irrefutable evidence, legal gray areas, or misconduct that doesn’t fit neatly into the category of “collusion.” The question of which of these better describes Mueller’s findings will be quite important in shaping our understanding of the Trump-Russia scandal as a whole.

2) Why didn’t Mueller “exonerate” Trump on obstruction of justice? We know a fair amount about the obstruction investigation already — that Mueller probed Trump’s interactions with then-FBI director James Comey, Trump’s decision to fire Comey, Trump’s pressures on other Justice Department officials, and Trump’s interactions with Russia probe witnesses and defendants.

But the report gives us something closer to the full scope of Mueller’s evidence on these topics. It offers an answer to why Mueller declined to make a prosecutorial recommendation on obstruction one way or the other. And it explains why there have been recent behind-the-scenes tensions between some Mueller team members and Barr over how damning the report really is.

ABC News’s Jonathan Karl reported that before the report was released, “There is significant concern on the president’s team about what will be in this report” — and said that what former White House counsel Don McGahn told Mueller’s team about obstruction “worries them the most.”

3) How many investigations did Mueller hand off? During his 22-month investigation, Mueller’s team turned up information on a number of different topics that weren’t Russian interference with the presidential election. So the special counsel ended up referring “a number” of cases to other Justice Department offices for potential investigation and prosecution.

We knew about some of these referrals — cases related to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig. But we don’t know how many others there are that we don’t yet know about. The report may shed more light on this, since Barr has said that redactions that relate to ongoing investigations will be identified as such.

4) Is the report too redacted to make sense of? Finally, hanging over all the above is the question of what is in the large swaths of text blacked out in the redacted report. We can’t really know whether the redactions have been applied in a reasonable and limited way, and it was simply necessary to redact whole pages of the report — or whether they’ve been overused to hide an excessive amount of information. Liberally applied black bars can be cover for a whole lot of mischief.

It’s important to remember that members of Congress are seeing a less-redacted version of the report. If there are major discrepancies between their version and the public version — or if the Congressional version still redacts large amounts of information — House Democrats may well call attention to that as they continue their calls to receive the full, unredacted report.

What happens after the report is released — and specifically, whether Democrats present the public report as compromised or not — will determine whether the report ultimately provides closure to the Trump-Russia investigation, or whether it will only stoke further questions about what information is being concealed.


For cover of the Mueller report’s release, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.