Silent screams: Barr’s summary of the Mueller report

The Special Counsel Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election (sometimes nicknamed the Mueller Inquiry) officially began in May 2017, though the origins that led to its creation extend back at least as far as January 2017. As well as investigating Russian interference, the inquiry was also looking at obstruction of justice. The investigation came to an end not quite three days ago as I write this, when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III submitted his final report to United States Attorney General William Barr. For those not familiar with the US legal system, the United States Attorney General (US AG for short) is the top lawyer dog in the US. This person heads up the US Department of Justice and this position is considered one the the Big Four, alongside the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Defense. Arguably, one of these four jobs is about as high as you can get without being the actual president. And no, I’m not forgetting about the vice president here, either.

Moving on, what relevant facts should we know about William Barr? Well, in June 2018, before he was appointed as US AG, Barr sent an unsolicited 20-page memorandum to the deputy US AG Rod Rosenstein, criticising the then-one-year-old Mueller investigation’s focus on obstruction of justice. Barr had no internal access to the investigation, nor to any of its evidence. Despite this, in his memo, Barr described Mueller’s obstruction theory as “fatally misconceived” and argued that it was “based on a novel and legally unsupportable reading of the law”. In that letter he also suggested that, based on his understanding, Trump’s actions were covered by his executive privilege. (NB. This memo will come up again.) Eight months later, in February 2019, Barr was appointed as US AG by Trump. Just to make the connections absolutely crystal clear, Special Counsel Investigations like the Mueller Inquiry fall under the US AG’s purview.

So, a little under six weeks after Barr was appointed by Trump, on Friday the 22nd of March, 2019 – not quite three days ago – the Special Counsel Mueller’s Investigation ended. The circumstances of that ending are unclear, but there we go. Mueller handed Barr his final report on that Friday, and on Sunday the 24th of March, yesterday as I’m writing this, around forty-eight hours after receiving this report, Barr released a four-page, 1,650-word summary of it. I’m going to come back to this too.

It wasn’t long before the White House machinery turned the dial up to eleven and began honking out tweets like this particular gem from the Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, sent on Sunday:

Sarah Sanders (@PressSec)

The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction. AG Barr and DAG Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction. The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States.

8:13 PM – 24 Mar 2019

And of course, of course, Trump was all over this like a linguist on free food. On Sunday he tweeted:

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

8:42 PM – 24 Mar 2019

What’s weird here is that Trump, Sanders, and loyal White House aides have called this inquiry a witch-hunt dozens (hundreds?) of times by now and claimed that its conclusions are meaningless. Surely that stands no matter what those conclusions are, right? I mean, if it’s a hoax inquiry, the results are nonsense whether they agree or disagree with you?

But, I digress. Barr’s summary and these tweets led to the media breaking out in a rash of headlines, like the following from the BBC:

MUELLER REPORT: TRUMP CLEARED OF CONSPIRING WITH RUSSIA

Or this from the Wall Street Journal:

MUELLER DOESN’T FIND TRUMP CAMPAIGN CONSPIRED WITH RUSSIA

Or this marginally more nuanced effort from The New York Times:

MUELLER FINDS NO TRUMP-RUSSIA CONSPIRACY, BUT STOPS SHORT OF EXONERATING PRESIDENT ON OBSTRUCTION

On the basis of these tweets and headlines, I found and read the letter, and promptly felt like I was having some sort of weird, out-of-body experience. In my absurd little experiential schema of the world, I call this the Full Monty Effect. By that, I mean that when the movie, the Full Monty, first came out, I didn’t see it. In fact, I didn’t see it for maybe two or three years, and every time it came up in conversation, people raved about how good it was. Finally, I got round to viewing it, and I was completely underwhelmed. I think the problem was that what everyone actually meant was, “It’s good for a British film about middle-aged out-of-shape men stripping off”. And for a middle-aged-British-men-stripping-off film, it is good. For just any film ever? It’s, you know… 🤷‍♀️

Anyway. My point is, those tweets and headlines had started to shape my expectations and so I got stuck into Barr’s summary, waiting for these enormous bombs to drop, and by the end I was baffled. I went back and read the tweets and headlines again, and then read the letter again, and had that experience when Will Farrell’s character Mugatu in Zoolander starts screaming, “Doesn’t anybody notice? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

This post is basically an explanation of why I feel like there is such a bizarre disconnect between those tweets and headlines, and Barr’s summary. Bear in mind, as I type this, the news has already been breaking globally for many hours now, so that by the time I finish writing this and post it, half the world will have already applied its brain and come up with many of these points and more besides. I’m not taking credit for being a secret Barr-whispering super mind-reading genius. And obviously, I haven’t read the actual Mueller report, though god knows I wish I could. This is just the collection of thoughts that I could not let go of as I cycled here this morning. So, let’s get stuck in.

Conspiracy

Firstly, you can and should read the letter in full. It’s not that long, and you’ll get a much better sense of what I’m saying. There’s a link to the PDF here. But let’s say you don’t have time. I’m going to break it down, paragraph by paragraph, quote by quote, and point out each bit that gave me pause for thought.

Barr opens the letter by calling this an initial review. He says that Mueller’s document is entitled, Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Barr notes that his review is ongoing – I should hope so, but also, thank goodness – and then says that he will describe the report, and summarise the investigation’s principal results and conclusions. So far so good.

Barr outlines that the Mueller Inquiry looked at potential collusion with Russia on the one hand, and obstruction of justice on the other. Nothing new here. Then Barr summarises what I am going to guess was some kind of investigation-by-numbers overview page. In brief, this outlines that the inquiry team included nineteen lawyers and approximately forty FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and other professional staff. Over the twenty-two months that the inquiry ran, this team…

  • issued over 2,800 subpoenas
  • executed nearly 500 search warrants
  • obtained more than 230 orders for communication records
  • issued almost 50 orders authorizing use of pen registers
  • made 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence, and
  • interviewed approximately 500 witnesses

In the background, too, as I’ve been reading about this case, I’ve noted that Mueller’s investigation has also resulted in 215 criminal charges, thirty-eight indictments or pleas, and five prison sentences. So far. More could be added to that list, as I’ll mention again at the end.

Back to Barr’s overview of the numbers. This is where my very first alarm bells go off. Before I deal with Mueller’s report, though, let’s take Barr’s summary first. His letter is only 1,600 words, give or take a bit for addresses and signatures and so forth. However, I am going to assume that it is 1,600 of the best words. Words that have been extremely carefully chosen. I would be staggered if Barr did not get advice, and if those who gave him advice didn’t also get advice on their advice, on exactly how to frame and word this letter. It is going to be scrutinized globally and extensively by people like me who nitpick at every single word, as I do in this blog post. In other words, I do not think that this can have been the work of an hour. Even a gifted lawyer would struggle, I suspect, to whip up a document like this, complete with legal citations, in a short space of time. But then there’s the time required for people to read it, give him advice, and for him to make changes. Even if this process were amazingly swift, despite being carried out on a Sunday, and if it all took only, say, six hours from starting to submitting, that is half a day gone out of the weekend that Barr gave himself to read Mueller’s report.

Back to the Mueller-by-numbers that Barr just gave. He does not say how long Mueller’s report actually is in either pages or word count. Let’s do some guesswork. If we add together all the subpoenas, search warrants, orders, and so forth, but exclude the extra facts I added about plea deals and criminal charges and whatnot because it seems unfair to randomly throw them in, then according to Barr’s summary, we find that there have been 4,093 “events”, for want of a better word. Now let’s imagine that for whatever reason, perhaps by virtue of being extremely parsimonious with his words, Mueller only spends half a page on each of these events. He might simply document rationales, contexts, outcomes, relevance – why this subpoena was issued or that search warrant was executed, why Individual A was interviewed, what evidence Foreign Government B was able to add, and so on, and so forth.

Half a page each.

That makes for a ~2,000-page report.

Taking Barr’s own letter as a very loose model, one page fits around 480 words on it, but let’s round down to 400, just to be thoroughly fair. 2,000 pages with 400 words on each takes us up to 800,000 words in the report alone. This is excluding any appendices which might contain witness testimony, exhibits, bank statements, phone records, emails, and goodness knows what else. That’s just 800,000 words of narrative. But I want to be even more extra-fair here. I could be wrong about how Mueller has structured the report. Just because I might dedicate a section to each development, Mueller might have opted instead for a chronological explanation of events, or bundled together several identical themes, or put a lot into appendices. This is why I’m constantly and substantially rounding down and choosing very conservative options. Remember, also, though that Mueller had two years of work to report on and justify, which includes over thirty indictments and a host of criminal cases that have been handed off to other prosecutors. All this too will have been helpfully added to and expanded on by his huge legal team, and I would be pretty amazed if some of the more complex events and central figures in those indictments did not get substantially more than half a page each. If nothing else, court filings in the Mueller cases have often shown a tendency towards extraordinary amounts of detail, rather than parsimony. Anyway.

800,000 words.

For context, the entire Harry Potter series of books is just a shade short of one million words. That’s all seven books. By coincidence the last book is just a fraction short of 200,000 words, so, if we knock it off, we get pretty much the same word count for books one through to six as my estimate is suggesting here for the Mueller report. Only, one is full of dark arts and trolls and an evil cadre of corrupt people trying to take over via evil schemes, and the other… Well. Moving on, imagine, if you will, sitting and reading the first six books in the Harry Potter series in the space of a single weekend. And then summarising those six books accurately in a four-page letter. One that could get you prosecuted if you make a mess of it, no less. And the entire world’s media is going to scrutinise every comma and clause.

Yeah.

Barr then notes that Mueller’s report,

does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.

This caused, I think, a lot of agony among those who want Trump out, especially in the way the media has picked it up and run off with it. When people came to this sentence, I feel like a lot of them read the words, “The end. It is over. Trump is cleared. The investigation is dead. You lose. Evil really does pay.” And so on. In reality, this report is the first chapter in what I suspect will be a very long saga. And I do mean long. I’ll say more about this at the end, but in short, that sentence really only says, “End of chapter one”.

Onwards! Barr now gives a very simple description of how the report is laid out. He says it’s in two sections, one dedicated to Russian interference, and one to obstruction of justice. About Russian interference, Barr goes on to say that the report outlines Russian efforts to influence the election (no surprise) and that a primary concern for Mueller was whether any Americans, including Trump campaign associates, took part in Russian election influencing conspiracies, since this would be a federal crime. Barr writes:

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Barr then quotes Mueller’s report for the very first time. We get what looks to be a fragment of a sentence – all of twenty-three words. Those twenty-three words read as follows:

[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

So I noted three major differences between Barr’s summary, and the quote he gives from Mueller. Firstly, Barr uses did not find, and Mueller uses did not establish. To me, those are two different things. In practice, legally, a finding is akin to a conclusion, or a judgement, e.g. I find you in contempt of court. It’s a metaphorical extension of a literal discovery of something. For the ordinary reader, however, it’s likely to be read as it suggesting that there was nothing to find. No evidence. Of course that’s different from reaching a legal conclusion. By contrast, Mueller’s use of establish suggests an alternative possibility – that there was not enough evidence. Additionally, we have no idea what the first part of this sentence said. It may be a whole series of contradictory remarks, followed by the word however, and then this quote, for example:

We established plenty of evidence of criminal behaviour X, however, [here begins the quote ] the investigation did not establish Y.

The second key discrepancy is when Barr says Russia. Just, everyone in Russia, I guess. But Mueller’s quote doesn’t say Russia. It says the Russian government. That’s radically more specific. Barr’s summary seems to suggest that none of the Trump campaign conspired with any Russians whatsoever. Mueller’s only states that they didn’t conspire with the Russian government, and as we know, many of the individuals involved so far in the interference – hackers, journalists, trolls, informants, and so forth, would probably not be described as being part of the Russian government.

The third issue is that Barr says, the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it. And yet, Mueller says only, members of the Trump Campaign. Moreover, that’s also capitalised, too, as though it is being used in a very particular, pre-defined manner, or is indicative of a specific, formal organisation. That begs the question, is Trump a member of the Trump Campaign? That’s not as stupid a question as it sounds. There are plenty of Trump X and Y Trump organisations, groups, committees and who only knows what else, that Trump has no part it. So, if that is a formal organisation, was he in it? If not, then that statement from Mueller does not include whether Trump himself colluded or coordinated with the Russian government.

Whatever the case, those two groups in those two quotes are widely different. Mueller is talking about just the Russian Government and just the Trump Campaign. Barr, however, broadens this to Russia and the Trump campaign and anyone associated with it. By extending the groups like this, Barr appears to be exonerating whole bunches of extra people. The most disturbing aspect of this for me, though, is that Barr literally has Mueller’s quote there, in front of his eyes, as he’s writing this, and yet, in my view, he garbles that quote in three different ways. That’s a pretty impressive mess to make of twenty-three words.

Moving on again, Barr describes Mueller’s investigation into the Internet Research Agency (or IRA) and he repeats his prior claim about how no American or Trump campaign person conspired with the IRA because Mueller said, paraphrasing, “no one conspired with Russia”. But, at the risk of repeating myself, Mueller didn’t say that. He said Russian government, and based on some prolonged scouring of the internet, I cannot find any evidence that the IRA is an official Russian government organisation. Does it probably have links to the Kremlin? Sure. Many, I imagine. But is it an actual governmental organisation? It certainly doesn’t look like it. I mean, it’s even listed as an Ltd. I don’t think government agencies have Ltd. in their titles, right? Send me corrections if I’m wrong. However, if I am right, this makes Barr’s continued use of the “Mueller said Russia” (no he didn’t) gambit useless.

Then Barr talks about the computer hacks, and this time, finally, he actually uses Mueller’s “Russian government” phrase correctly. Barr states that “Russian government actors” hacked into various Democratic Party computers, sucked up a whole slew of emails and documents, and pumped those out through other platforms like WikiLeaks. And then he says,

the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

So there’s a lot going on here. Firstly, is a Russian government actor the same as the Russian government? If the British government asked me to write a blog post for them, would I be a British government actor? I think maybe yes I would? But would that make me a part of the British government? No, I don’t think so. My suspicion – and I could be wrong – is that Barr’s sudden rage to say Russian government now, here, is because this paints a very specific picture at this point. I doubt that the individuals involved in hacking and WikiLeaking and so forth are part of the Russian government. Actors for the Russian government? Sure. But part of the Russian government itself? I’m doubtful. Just to stress this as clearly as possible, I could be wrong, but I find it interesting that Barr seems to neatly state that Trump et al. did not conspire or coordinate with the Russian government in these efforts. Why not just stick with the previous pattern say that Trump etc. did not conspire or coordinate with Russia in these efforts?

Obstruction

Barr then moves into the second part of the report about whether Trump had effectively interfered in active and ongoing investigations. If Barr’s representation is fair, and I leave you to determine that for yourself, Mueller seems to have weighed up whether it was his place to decide whether Trump’s conduct ever met the level of a prosecutable offence. In Barr’s own words, Mueller,

ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.

Barr describes Mueller as setting out evidence on both sides (one presumes both for and against), but this still leaves many difficult legal questions, including those around, I am assuming, whether Trump had the necessary corrupt intent. Barr then quotes Mueller again, yet another partial sentence, this time a mere eighteen words, thus:

while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Okay. So. Wait a minute. Remember those tweets from Sarah Sanders? She actually twote:

The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction. AG Barr and DAG Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction.

And then Trump tweeted,

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION

Just… what? I mean, the letter literally says, “it does not exonerate you”. I don’t even… Mugatu. I feel you.

But then it gets even more crazy. The fact that Mueller does not draw a conclusion is taken, in my view, as a pass for Barr as US AG to step in and do what Mueller did not – that is, to draw his own conclusion on whether obstruction occurred. Again, remember, this report will have numbered hundreds of pages. I suspect thousands, actually, and when all testimony and exhibits and other appendices are taken into account, it could easily be into the millions. Also remember that Mueller has had two years to chew on these issues, alongside a team of the brightest legal minds. Just in case it could somehow help, he’s even had an endless external stream of external reporting and speculation on every visible twitch and spasm that has run through the Mueller inquiry, and from this, who knows, he may have garnered further inspiration for avenues to pursue. And yet, with millions of dollars, brilliant lawyers, and every other possible resource at his command, it seems, according to Barr’s summary, that Mueller has not found a clearcut answer to the question of obstruction.

By contrast, with only a weekend to read the whole report plus any attendant evidence, and then weigh up all the facts of the case, Barr has decided to step in. In the very meagre forty-eight or so hours that he gave himself, Barr spent who knows how many precious hours,

reviewing the Special Counsel’s final report on these issues; consulting with Department officials, including the Office of Legal Counsel; and applying the principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions.

That’s a lot of highly technical, cerebral, and careful work going on there, under enormous pressure and severe time constraints. Anyway, Barr then states the following:

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Yes. I am as shocked as you are. The guy who wrote a 20-page memo back in June criticising Mueller’s theory of obstruction finally concluded, in a single weekend, that there was indeed no obstruction of justice.

Barr then quotes Mueller’s report once more, just another nineteen words, and yet again, a partial sentence, thus:

the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.

Sounds good, right? And yet, by my calculation, that’s hardly a glowing reference of professional and personal commendation for the President of the United States. What’s wrong with it? Well, this quote does not say the President did not commit a crime. It says, at best, that Mueller’s investigation could not establish enough evidence to prove a crime in court beyond reasonable doubt. It also says nothing about any other crimes unrelated to Russian election interference. It says nothing about people around Trump committing crimes. And it says nothing of conduct that falls short of a crime. It’s somewhat akin to saying,

the evidence does not establish that Dr Hardaker was involved in an underlying crime related to stealing cakes.

I might be an awesome cake thief and leave too little evidence for you to convict me. I might have sent someone else to steal the cakes and successfully erased the links between them and myself. I might actually have stolen biscuits, not cakes. But hey, I’m innocent on all cakespiracy charges, so, #HappyNoCollusionDay.

Back to Barr. As best as I understand the next bit, Barr then seems to suggest that to even charge someone for obstruction, there has to be an actual underlying issue – a crime, a misdemeanor, whatever – that they’re trying to stop the authorities from finding out about. In practise, based on my readings again, this does not seem to be the case. It seems that people have been charged with obstruction simply because they despised the authorities, wanted to make life hard for them, and so were extremely uncooperative and, well, obstructive. However, this bit is strictly beyond linguistics and well into law, so I’ll let the lawyers pick over that one. Again, send me corrections if you like.

Finally, we get onto the bit of Barr’s report where I actually have some sympathy, though I do also suspect that this is going to get abused for political purposes anyway. Barr makes a statement about how he is constrained from releasing the Mueller report in full because, bluntly, he would fuck up a lot of shit if he did. There are a ton of ongoing investigations (see the Conclusion for more on this). Dumping a fully unredacted Mueller report onto the internet could and would substantially prejudice or entirely derail numerous live criminal investigations going through the courts right now. Also, there’s likely a ton of personally identifying information in there, and probably also a reasonable amount of information on intelligence gathering ways and means. It is not smart to tell others countries *cough*Russia*cough* how you go about getting your intel, or what your current security and espionage practices amount to. That stuff needs crossing out. And for the love of god, politicians, if you’re going to do this, get someone who knows what they’re actually doing to redact that information. Putting block boxes over the text, or turning the font white, or just forgetting and uploading the wrong version – just don’t. If you think I’m kidding, look back over some of the court filing gaffes in the Mueller Inquiry. All this and more has happened.

Anyway, I do think the “we can’t release it just yet” pony will get ridden half to death as Trump and friends fight desperately to keep it hidden for as long as humanly possibly. In short, I predict that we’ll probably end up reading at least some of it via a leak first.

Let’s go to the Barr and get Muellered

To come back to the title of this blog post, where others seem to have read calm, confident assertions of innocent, to me this letter reads like stifled screams of agony from Barr. I have this image of him weeping and bleeding over the Mueller report, frantically looking for any clause or half sentence that will make Trump#s case. Why do I think this? Well, to summarise, he only quotes sixty words from the Mueller report. Sixty. Three tiny sentence fragments. Out of hundreds, if not thousands of pages. Those sixty words, just to remind you, are:

[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

[W]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

[T]he evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.

So, we have this very narrow first denial of a very specific scenario involving the Russian government and the Trump Campaign, which, incidentally, may not even include Trump himself. It says nothing of non-Trump Campaign and non-Russian-governmental possibilities. It doesn’t even say that nothing happened with these two exact groups. Only that any wrongdoing could not be successfully established. Then the second quote says Trump did something, it’s just ambiguous as to how serious that something was. And then in the third quote, we again have this very specific scenario which does not say that nothing happened, but only that the available evidence could not establish that very particular charge.

So, mostly to me this feels like the last dying screams of a tortured US AG. After all, if the report were highly favourable, one would assume that Barr would have quoted it at length. Many times. He would have battered the electorate under an avalanche of extensive, unambiguous, exonerating paragraphs all penned by that mighty icon of justice himself, Robert S. Mueller III. But no.

Added to this, even with the quotes in front of him, Barr seems to garble some of them. If he cannot even present the quotes faithfully that he literally reproduced for the rest of us to read, what does that say about the credibility of the rest of his summary in which Mueller is merely paraphrased? Are there other issues? And then there is a lot this report does not say. This letter spends a lot of time on Russia, but says absolutely nothing about the many other countries that have been implicated throughout the inquiry, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Ukraine, and more besides.

And then the final issue that was so remarkable I nearly lost both eyebrows at once, was the final section on obstruction. In what feels like a breathtakingly short period of time, Barr decided on the president’s innocence or guilt surrounding the obstruction of justice charge. It feels impossible to me that one can arrive carefully, factually, responsibly, and with proper due consideration, on such a momentous issue that has cost millions of dollars and taken years to lay out, in a single weekend. This leaves possible alternatives. Barr did not carefully read the whole report, and this judgement is the result of some extremely quick and/or lots of very superficial parsing. Or, he had a preconceived bias or objective, has acted upon that, and has found no obstruction. That would be consistent with his memo of last year, but of course, this is, again, purely speculation.

It is not over

On a final note, for those of you who read the Barr summary and felt as though it signaled the end of times, the fall of integrity, the rise of a populist political horror-clown-show, and the final curtain before the earth spins, screaming, into the sun, I would like to stress again, that it really, really is not over. The first chapter is over. I suspect there are at least another twenty to go.

Remember, Trump doesn’t have to commit a crime to be impeached. In simple terms, impeachment is a judgement about fitness for office, in terms of one’s moral conduct, principles, integrity, and so forth. It is not a criminal standard. That said, if one is found guilty of a crime (or ten) then one would hope that by default, this would be considered sufficient to bring about impeachment too. However, impeachment is not the end of the road. As a term it is best thought of as, “being put on trial by the House of Representatives”. The House can impeach, and then the president faces a trial, but at the end of this, the Senate votes on whether to remove the president. Should things look favourable, the president can ride out the storm and survive the removal process, like Bill Clinton did. However, if things look grim, the president could find an alternative exit, like resignation, thereby jumping before he is pushed. Whatever the case, the short version here is that just because Barr has given us sixty words of Mueller’s report which are, in themselves, not exactly glowing, this does not mean that Trump and his conduct is unimpeachable, in all senses of that word.

In case you want to know what those other chapters are, before Mueller’s report was handed in, the House of Representatives unanimously voted that the report must be released. This was later blocked, but that strength of feeling exists, and it exists in the Republican party – supposedly Trump’s team. Further, Congress is also launching, or in the middle of, its own investigations. The House Intelligence, Financial Services, Oversight, Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, and Judiciary Committees all have skin in the game. That’s six different committees, incidentally, just in case you somehow read that as one extremely comprehensive committee that does a bit of everything.

And finally, this investigation has spawned dozens of further criminal investigations. Many have been handed off to federal prosecutors in various courts. For instance, the Southern District of New York (SDNY) has at least three investigations underway focusing on issues such as Trump’s inaugural committee and where its record-breaking donations of money came from. This one is bristling with Paul Manaforts, Michael Cohens, super-PACs, lobbyists, dark money, and the Middle East, so stay tuned to SDNY. The Eastern District of Virginia also has at least three cases to consider. Highlights here will be Michael Flynn, Bijan Kian, the Turkish government, and the IRA. The District of Columbia also has several cases involving WikiLeaks and its handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, Maria Butina, and yet more IRA. Then the Department of Justice seems to be investigating Elliot Broidy. Meanwhile, New York State and New York City have four ongoing investigations into the Trump Foundation, the Trump Organization, and loans that Trump obtained from Deutsche Bank. And Maryland and the District of Columbia have been suing Trump over the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Oh, and Manhattan District is also pursuing Paul Manafort for a further sixteen charges. If many of these names are unfamiliar to you, rest assured, they are all entangled in the Trump presidential election campaign and/or the Trump administration in some way.

So take heart. There are numerous investigations still going on across the US and even across the globe as foreign governments seek to understand issues such as how much organisations like Cambridge Analytica/Emerdata/Qualtrics have affected their own election processes. From the US investigations many more indictments can and probably will spring forth. In handing off investigations to federal prosecutors, Mueller, in effect, created a whole host of micro-Mueller investigations, and I suspect it will be years before they are finally all resolved. There is a lot more to come. The Mueller report is only the beginning.

How to be a (recreational) forensic linguist

Yesterday (5 September 2018) the New York Times printed an op-ed by an anonymous source, entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration. [I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.]” Allegedly penned by a senior official in the Trump administration, possibly from within the White House itself, the piece outlines aspects of Trump’s behaviour in fairly unflattering terms, and describes some of the internal resistance being staged against him on a day-to-day basis.

Interestingly, rather than discredit the author’s proximity, the response from Trump a few hours later was to encourage the author to resign. This rather lent credibility to the piece’s authenticity and arguably made it even more damaging than it would have otherwise been had Trump simply laughed it off as a wild story by some fabulist that had never been within a mile of him. The result was that, overnight, a whole slew of people suddenly became forensic linguists specialising in authorship attribution. It’s been fun to watch and I’ve written this simple “how to be a forensic linguist” guide in response to the scramble to identify the author. Continue reading

Worker, she twote: are the Amazombies real people, or is it all a PR stunt?

Over the past few days, TechCrunch, The Guardian, and others have been writing with some amusement about the inexplicable and rather silly little army of Amazon bot-drones that have sprung up on Twitter. Assuming they don’t get deleted in a fit of embarrassment, you should be able to find those accounts here. The questions that sprang up across various media sources ranged from, “Is this elaborate counter-marketing?” to “Are these people really… real?”

That latter question naturally caught my full attention, so I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon addressing two research questions:

  • Are these tweets really being sent by a bunch of unique people?
  • Or are these all synthetic identities that are the work of a PR company employee or two?

Continue reading

The devil in the data: are women as aggressive online as men?

So, sometimes things grind along veeeeery slowly in the background, and eventually, finally, at long last, I get to them. This has been one of those slow-burn projects. To understand what’s going on, it’s worth briefly casting our eyes back to this post. Alternatively, if you want a very short overview, then here it is…

On the 26th of May, 2016, Demos thinktank’s Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) presented the results of an investigation into the use of misogynistic terms on Twitter to the House of Commons. This work was a collaboration between the thinktank Demos and the TAG laboratory at the University of Sussex, and the release of the report was timed to coincide with a political, cross-party campaign, Recl@im the Internet. Launched by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the aim of Recl@im the Internet is described thus: Continue reading

Missing Melania II: has Trump used the First Lady’s Twitter accounts in the past?

With her absence from Camp David this weekend, Melania Trump’s absence continues into the 24th day, and as time passes, the number of theories about her disappearance are increasing. Twitter is an excellent source for these if you’re interested, but the main ones appear to be that she is secretly giving evidence to Mueller; that she is back in New York with her son; and that she is busy instigating divorce proceedings.

However, whilst all of that foments away in the background, something quite different caught my eye – the highlighted tweet below from @MELANIATRUMP back on the 18th of October 2013:

@realDonaldTrump: I love watching the dishonest writers @NYMag suffer the magazine’s failure.

@DanAmira: Your wife is waiting for you to die (…)

@MELANIATRUMP: @DanAmira @NYMag Only a dumb “animal” would say that! You should be fired from your failing magazine! (Link)

Intriguingly, in 2016, New Yorker noted about this very tweet that, “One couldn’t help but detect Donald’s influence when Melania fired off [this] reply”, and plenty of users replied with similar questions about precisely who might have written it. Continue reading

Missing Melania: is the First Lady’s Twitter account being used by Trump?

As we speak (01st June 2018), interesting conspiracies are breaking across some news networks about Melania Trump. The First Lady has allegedly not been seen in public for twenty days, and according to White House sources, she is recovering from an operation. However, the increasing concern for her welfare was heightened with the latest (as of this moment) tweet from her FLOTUS account on Wednesday 30th May which reads:

I see the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I’m doing.  Rest assured, I’m here at the @WhiteHouse w my family, feeling great, & working hard on behalf of children & the American people! (Link)

The reaction by some to this tweet was an immediate cynicism that she had written it. Some felt that it was authored by Trump, and others demanded to see her holding a current newspaper. So, is that tweet truly unusual for the First Lady? Or is this a case of mass-confirmation-bias, where many people who already hold Donald Trump in contempt have simply found another possible avenue of attack? I thought I’d have a look at it out of curiosity and see what I could see. Continue reading

The savage garden of social media: London’s violent crime surge

Over the past few days, the media has been reporting on a “surge” in violent crime in the capital. Figures such as Met Commissioner Cressida Dick and Home Secretary Amber Rudd have framed this fluctuation with a narrative that social media is playing a key role in arguments between young people, particularly those in gangs, by allowing them to react quickly to online grievances with offline violence. For instance, Met Commissioner Dick claims that “sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram are partially to blame for the bloodshed” (source). As someone who researches online aggression, I find this notion particularly interesting. Continue reading

The Ghost(writer) Busters: Can machine learning help in the fight against contract cheating?

Yesterday morning (Mon 12 Feb 18) the Times Higher published an article entitled “Caution over Turnitin’s role in fight against essay mills” (tagline: New software to identify ghost-written essays welcomed, but experts say it is not a panacea). To summarise, the article describes how, later this year, Turnitin will be releasing their new tool, Authorship Investigation, which “will use machine learning algorithms and forensic linguistic analysis to detect major differences in students’ writing style between papers”. Continue reading

PyClaireH versus RyClaireH: which bot wins the imitation game?

I’ve been meaning to write about my newest bot for a while, but finally here we are. Welcome, RyClaireH, to the fold. Yay! In case you’re wondering who the other bot is, you can find out all about PyClaireH in this blog post. For those already familiar with Py, the easiest way to describe Ry is through her differences. Where Py is a Markov chain (more detail on this), Ry is a much more sophisticated pseudo-Markov chain. Py essentially uses word-level probabilities to construct sentences based on the likelihood that one word will occur after another. On the other hand, Ry uses NLP (natural language processing). From this toolkit, she tags each word in the data for its part of speech (e.g. noun, verb, adverb, adjective, etc.) in advance, and also uses dictionaries of nouns and adjectives to help her formulate more syntactically coherent tweets. In a nutshell, Py is a very simple bot that works at the level of the word (lexis), whereas Ry works with both words (lexis) and grammar (syntax). Neither bot has any help at the higher levels of language, such as with the meanings of words (semantics), and certainly not with the meanings communicated beyond the word (pragmatics). Arguably a semantically “aware” bot is possible – semantic tagging by something like the USAS tagger could provide a nice way in, but to incorporate that into the model requires a level of programming competence I don’t possess.

As I mentioned in my Py post a few months ago, one of my interests was in whether more coding and extra tools would help Ry to be more convincing than Py, or if it would actually hinder her, so this post is a non-serious, barely-scientific, entirely-amusement-driven shoot-out between the two. You can (and indeed should) pick about three hundred holes in the general methods and rigour of this, but I refuse to let that stop me.

So, onwards. Continue reading

Lies, damned lies, and slippery surveys

On the afternoon of Thursday 16th February, perhaps in light of a week that has been even rockier than usual, current US President Donald Trump held a controversial press conference. Whilst this was, in itself, newsworthy for a variety of reasons, there was an unexpected plot-twist. Trump followed up with sending out a mailshot to his Republican supporters…

Click to embiggen, but just in case you can’t read the image for some reason, as its preface, the email opened with the ongoing narrative that “the mainstream media” (this damning moniker seems to exclude pro-Trump agencies such as Fox News, incidentally) is carrying out hit jobs, attacks, deceptions, and so forth, specifically against Trump and the Republicans. As part of the resistance to this, recipients were encouraged to complete a “Mainstream Media Accountability Survey” (PDF for posterity).

Very quickly, that terribly biased, pesky mainstream media noted that this survey was, itself, rather biased. In fairness to both sides, claiming that a survey is biased is an easy win. Every survey and questionnaire contains bias right from the start – the goal of the survey, the topic choice, the time of asking, the person who is asked, the person doing the asking – all are the product of intentional choice and have an ability to alter the results, but the point is to limit and control for all of these factors as much as possible. More importantly, it’s an easy claim to make because it can be surprisingly difficult to pick out the exact features that are creating larger degrees of bias than we would consider acceptable. You might read the survey and get an intuitive sense that it isn’t playing fairly, but it’s helpful to be able to specifically identify the very methods that are being employed to push you one way or another. And that’s what I do in this post. Continue reading