In just a couple hundred words, Attorney General Bill Barr officially ended the special counsel investigation and set the stage for the long-awaited findings of possible collusion with Russia. Pundits immediately took apart every clause and analyzed every tense to find some indication of the findings of Robert Mueller. In the end, of course, the letter to Congress was about as informative as a haiku highway sign. It merely states that the report has been submitted and that Barr has no disagreement with the special counsel’s actions or conclusions.
There is, however, one thing that stands out — a Zen-like question that contains a deeper answer, such as asking what sound does one hand clapping make. The question left in the wake of the Barr letter is: What does one-person collusion sound like?
The Justice Department has informed reporters that there will be no further indictments from the Special Counsel. Many people immediately insisted that does not mean anything, since the Justice Department has long maintained a policy that it should not indict a sitting president. However, it could mean a great deal.
While President Donald Trump could obstruct justice alone, collusion is something that needs at least two people and preferably more. Trump cannot collude with himself. So, if there was a finding of collusion, someone should be indicted even if Trump cannot be while in office. A third party would not be protected by the Justice Department policy. There certainly could be a sealed indictment, but one would expect a number of people would be involved in a collusion between the Trump campaign, the Russians and WikiLeaks to hack the Democratic campaign’s emails and then leak those.
For two years, I have been a vocal critic of claims that there is collusion and that there are clear crimes likely to be alleged as a result of such a conspiracy. It just did not seem to track.
First, one has to have more faith in Russian intelligence that it would not run one of the most risky intelligence operations in history and reveal it to Donald Trump or Donald Trump Jr. The Russians do not ordinarily run ultra-secret operations and then leave themselves one tweet away from utter disaster.
Second, it did not track that such a collusion conspiracy would then call a meeting in Trump Tower, with half of the world’s media downstairs — a meeting for which the Russians did not even know the attendees in advance.
Third, if the Russians really wanted to help Trump (and it appears that they may have), they would keep him and his campaign in the dark about such an operation.
Finally, despite using “speaking” indictments for the last two years, the only references in those indictments to possible collusion have been to deny such links. When the Russian hacking-and-trolling internet operation was the subject of a lengthy indictment, the Justice Department expressly said that any contacts with the Trump campaign were done “unwittingly.” The only question was whether Mueller was holding all of the evidence — every little bit — for a grand finish, as in an Agatha Christie novel.
Now, however, the biggest clue may have been dropped by omission.
Trump has shown that he can do a lot of damage alone. He can tweet alone and speak alone. He can even obstruct alone. The one thing he cannot do alone is collude. As defined by Webster’s dictionary, collusion is a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose” among multiple people.
There is no immaculate collusion.
The result may be chilling for Trump critics. For two years, the mantra has been “just wait for Mueller.” Well, Mueller is here, and he reportedly is bringing no additional indictments.
If Mueller found no collusion, it would be an undeniable vindication of Trump and would contradict countless legal analysts who have assured the public that collusion is obvious based on the existing record. Indeed, just last week, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said that “direct evidence” of collusion is already established. If so, someone should be directly indicted. Yet, even if collusion is a delusion, Schiff remains undeterred. He responded to the letter by insisting that he will continue the investigation and call Mueller before his committee.
We obviously will have to wait and see if the Mueller report will be released in some form. Attorney General Barr is required to give a summary of the matters investigated and the findings. What follows likely will be an intense debate at the Justice Department over whether the full report should be made public. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and others denounced former FBI Director James Comey for discussing evidence against Hillary Clinton after it was decided not to charge her in 2016; some may argue that the full release of the Mueller report would be Comey on steroids. Yet, there is an obvious public interest in this report and, in my view, ample reasons to order its release as an exception to the Justice Department policy of confidentiality.
For the moment, if there truly are no further indictments, the silence could prove deafening. Indeed, perhaps as one devotee of the Zen “koan” insisted, there is a sound of one hand clapping. It is the sound of silence: “The idea has something to do with hearing the sound of no sound.”
While monks could well disagree with that answer, it certainly is true with the special counsel. The sound of silence can tell you a great deal … whether or not you are willing to hear it.