But Weissmann finds himself disillusioned almost immediately—a moment he recounts in the book’s opening chapter as he reads Barr’s “summary” of the full Mueller report, frantically searching the attorney general’s letter on a Sunday afternoon for the scorching material that he knows is inside the report.
“I could not fathom that our work over the past twenty-two months was ending like this,” Weissmann writes. “We had gone out of our way to be fair and impartial, to conduct ourselves with professionalism, and to pressure test our investigation and its conclusions. We had given the subjects of the investigation the benefit of the doubt in our report, over and over, and had not leaked a single bit of embarrassing or damning information—only to now be blindsided by a political actor’s efforts to twist our investigation. We had just been played by the attorney general.”
There is little subtlety to Weissmann’s view that Barr’s letter represented a miscarriage of justice. His book’s title comes from the John Locke quote, “wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” The spare red, white, and blue book cover features the letterhead of the attorney general, a facsimile apparently of the letter in which Barr “summarized” the principal conclusions in such a misleading way as to forever skew the public’s perception of the investigation. “Barr had spun our findings for political gain, at best, and lied for the president, at worst,” Weissmann writes. “Barr had been unmasked. His public face as an institutionalist hid a political soul.”
And yet in many ways, as the remainder of Weissmann’s book outlines, the die had already been cast by the time the team filed their final report. Mueller, cautious about provoking the apparent worst impulses of the unguided missile in the Oval Office, never even pursued basic investigative questions or measures like subpoenaing the president himself. Witnesses from Papadopoulos to Manafort to the president’s own son, Donald Trump, Jr., failed to share what they knew, leaving investigators with hunches that the truth was worse than they could prove. Turn after turn, twist after twist, the prosecutors were left with unexplained suspicious actions, stories and alibis that didn’t add up, and evidence that didn’t fit the innocent picture painted by participants.
Those frustrations and dead-ends left the investigators themselves prone to the same sense of disappointment that many close followers of the Russia investigation felt when reading the team’s final report. There’s a lingering sense that we still don’t know the full truth, that Barr’s interference and Mueller’s timidity allowed the president to skate free of what should have been seen as a clear and fundamental breach of America’s rule of law.
That sense of letdown, the lack of a true smoking gun, obscured just how much damning evidence the team did assemble about the president and his campaign team—even to themselves. “The dashed prospect of learning something even more shocking diminished our perception of what we actually had in hand,” Weissmann writes.
As Weissmann sees it, America missed how bad the final report truly was for the president and for democracy because they expected it to be so much worse. As presented and carefully crafted by the special counsel’s office, the Mueller report should have been a politically fatal document for the president and a blinking red alarm for the nation’s security.
“The special counsel’s report was a devastating recitation of how Russian government operatives had infiltrated our electoral process, a conclusion that we all believed to be our most important long-term finding and one that required immediate and decisive action by our political leaders,” Weissmann writes.
In the second volume of the report, which dealt with the president’s attempt to obstruct the investigation, Mueller famously stopped short of concluding whether the evidence rose to the level of criminal charges. Weissmann says the team expected the American people to read more clearly between the lines—at least before Bill Barr and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, brushed the whole thing aside as a giant nothingburger.