The special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been released to the public at long last. All 400-plus pages of it.
But as lawmakers, journalists and lawyers for President Trump devour every detail in the highly anticipated report from Robert S. Mueller III, what was not made public may be just as important in shaping how the report is received.
After a closely guarded investigation captivated the American public for nearly two years, redactions to the final report have quickly become a sticking point. Democrats have expressed distrust over any attempt to filter their view of the treatise, with lawmakers demanding to see a full, unredacted copy. Tensions over transparency could lead to a subpoena or even send the issue to court.
Here’s what you need to know about the redactions and what they mean.
What kind of information was redacted and why?
Since Attorney General William P. Barr received the report from Mr. Mueller on March 22, law enforcement officials have spent nearly a month reviewing the report and removing information that they said could not be made public.
Mr. Barr, who promised to be as transparent as possible, said the redacted material would fall into four categories:
• Secret grand jury information: A federal rule of criminal procedure generally forbids disclosure of grand jury material.
• Classified information: Material that intelligence officials fear could compromise sensitive sources and methods, such as information from F.B.I. informants and foreign allies.
• Information related to other continuing investigations, a.k.a. “harm to ongoing matter”: Officials blacked out anything that could interfere with current investigations, including spinoffs of the Mueller inquiry.
• Information about “peripheral” people: Mr. Barr said he would redact “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
These concerns are standard for prosecutors handling sensitive information, although how broadly Mr. Barr applied them could be a matter of debate.
[Read more about the redaction categories and what they mean.]
What do the colors mean?
Mr. Barr said, “We will color-code the excisions from the report and we will provide explanatory notes describing the basis for each redaction.”
The report shows sections covered by black bars, with colored text describing the nature of the redaction. For example, grand jury information is labeled in red text. Personal privacy information is in green text. Material related to continuing investigations is labeled in white text.
How much information was withheld?
At a news conference on Thursday morning, Mr. Barr described the redactions as “limited.”
More than a dozen pages were fully redacted, or nearly so. Other pages had sections of text blacked out, including full paragraphs.
Much of the undisclosed material was in the first section of the report, on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its interactions with the Trump campaign, and was flagged as a “harm to ongoing matter.” Far less was scrubbed from the second part of the report, on whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice.
Who made the redactions?
Mr. Barr, a Trump appointee who has come under criticism for his handling of the report, including from Democrats who are suspicious that he may be trying to color the investigation’s outcome in the president’s favor, has said that his team was working with the special counsel to redact the report.
At the news conference on Thursday, Mr. Barr said the report had been redacted by lawyers from the Justice Department, working “closely” with the special counsel’s team, the intelligence community and prosecutors handling continuing cases.
“No one outside this group proposed any redactions,” he said.
He said Mr. Trump’s lawyers read a final version of the redacted report this week, but the White House did not request redactions based on executive privilege. “The president’s personal lawyers were not permitted to make, and did not request, any redactions,” he said.
Is this normal?
It is not uncommon for federal reports or other sensitive documents to be released with redactions, even with full pages blacked out. Information has both been kept secret for decades (F.B.I. files suspecting Marilyn Monroe of Communist sympathies remained redacted until 2012, 50 years after she died) and accidentally revealed with sloppy redactions (lawyers for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was a target of the special counsel, recently revealed sensitive information because of a redaction failure).
On the other hand, this is not your average government document. This is a report about an investigation involving a sitting president, which comes with strong national interest and its own historical precedent.
What happened in past investigations involving presidents?
Congress, if not the public, has received full reports, including grand jury information, according to Protect Democracy, a government watchdog group.
In the Watergate investigation into President Richard M. Nixon, Congress received a 62-page report, and through public hearings, the American people learned much of what it contained, according to lawyers for Protect Democracy. The report itself remained under seal for decades, until last year, after the watchdog group petitioned for its release.
Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, gave Congress a detailed, 445-page report that lawmakers voted to make public, although it is worth noting that he was operating under different rules than Mr. Mueller is today.
Regulations required Mr. Mueller to file a confidential report to the attorney general. Under the regulations, Mr. Barr can publicly release as much of the document as he deems appropriate.
Anne Tindall, a lawyer with Protect Democracy, said that at the very least, some members of the House Judiciary Committee should be able to view the unredacted Mueller report. “There is a difference in what goes to Congress and what goes to the public,” she said.
If the committee issues a subpoena for the full report and the Justice Department does not cooperate, she said, the House could sue to enforce the subpoena. Mr. Barr said Thursday he would make the report available to a bipartisan group of congressional leaders “with all redactions removed except those relating to grand jury information.”
“I don’t think anyone would debate that this is one of the most important investigations in American history and one where Congress’s interest in understanding what happened and making sure it doesn’t happen again is at its peak,” Ms. Tindall said.
What if I am desperate for more information?
We may find out more in the coming weeks.
The House Judiciary Committee has authorized a subpoena for the full report, which could come quickly if lawmakers are not satisfied with Thursday’s release.
Mr. Barr has also agreed to testify about his decisions to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which could happen in early May. And he has said he may release some of the redacted information to Congress, opening up the possibility that more information could reach the public.
But if you are ravenous for information now, you can always try some old tricks to reveal sloppily redacted information. The Justice Department was probably pretty careful in this case, but you could try copying and pasting the text into a new document, printing the report out on a high-quality color printer, changing the text color to white or simply counting the number of characters in a word to try to decipher its meaning.