UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. ...
Tom Williams

The most interesting brackets in recent political history

Updated

Beginning a post with a grammatical lesson may seem like a bad idea, but stick with me for a minute because this is going somewhere.

Let’s say I wrote an item that said, “I liked last night’s edition of ‘The Rachel Maddow Show,’ and learned a lot about Betsy DeVos and the Special Olympics, but what stood out for me was the coverage of Robert Mueller’s grand jury.”

Let’s also say you wanted to quote that item, but wanted to narrow the focus. You could truncate it a bit by removing part of the sentence: “[W]hat stood out for me was the coverage of Robert Mueller’s grand jury.”

The brackets around the “w” let the reader know that there were words that preceded the “what” in the original sentence. Without the brackets, if you quoted me by writing, “What stood out….” it’d be misleading to the reader, because the sentence didn’t start that exact way.

I mention all of this because I saw a Daily Kos item this morning that highlighted a detail I’d overlooked in Attorney General Bill Barr’s memo on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia scandal.

Arguably the most politically provocative line in the document was the one in which the attorney general said Mueller “did not establish” a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. But take another look at the sentence exactly as it appeared in Barr’s brief summary. Quoting Mueller’s findings, Barr wrote in his summary:

“As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’”

I’m so accustomed to seeing bracketed text, I didn’t stop to fully appreciate the fact that the most heavily quoted sentence in the Mueller report isn’t a sentence – it’s the latter part of a larger sentence.

To be sure, independent of the brackets, it’s an important 23-word excerpt, which has been parsed in a variety of ways. Some Republicans – and even some reporters – decided to interpret “did not establish” as “no evidence,” for example, which is a mistake. There are some related questions about the specific parameters of phrases such as “the Russian government.”

But the brackets add a specific detail: something immediately preceded this important part of the Mueller report.

Without seeing the original, one can only wonder and I’m not prepared to guess. Maybe the first part of the sentence helps Donald Trump’s case; maybe not. Maybe the attorney general cut off the sentence at a benign point, or maybe he was trying to obscure a detail the president would find embarrassing. There’s just no way to know. We’ll have to wait for the administration to release the special counsel’s findings (if the administration ever agrees to disclose it).

But this small grammatical detail is a reminder of just how little information we have about the document, which is apparently more than 300 pages long. While we wait for more meaningful transparency, perhaps Barr could at least tell us about the first part of that sentence?

How about releasing that paragraph?