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Professors discuss student engagement with Mueller report

A Daily survey of 1,000 undergrads, 1,000 graduate students and 1,000 PhD students asked to what extent students and their friends had read the report, and if they believed more Stanford students should read it.

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Since Attorney General William Barr published the Mueller Report on April 18, news organizations across the country from National Public Radio to The New York Times have produced reports discussing the 448-page findings of the Special Counsel investigation. Examples of extensive coverage of the report include searchable documents, annotations, analyses and columns regarding Robert Mueller’s language, the United States Justice Department’s redactions and decision not to indict President Donald Trump. Only a day after it was released, The Mueller Report even became an Amazon best seller.

On campus, however, the attention given to Mueller’s work does not appear to match the national level of interest. Of 224 Stanford students randomly surveyed by The Daily, nearly one in seven students –– from the undergraduate to the doctorate level –– said they are not interested in reading the report or news about the report.

Stanford faculty also have mixed opinions on the matter. The Daily interviewed professors from the political science, law and communication departments to investigate their reasons for encouraging or discouraging students from reading The Mueller Report.


The survey

The Daily conducted its survey over a period of two days, randomly sampling 1,000 undergraduate students, 1,000 graduate students and 1,000 Ph.D. students across campus. Each student was asked to what extent they and their friends had read the report, and if they believed more Stanford students should read it.

Nearly 80 percent of participants said they believe more students should read the Mueller Report. However, only 13 percent said they read at least parts of the document, and one in three students reported that none of their friends had read the report partially or in full.

Undergraduate students reported having read the report and news about the report at higher rates than graduate and Ph.D. students. However, more of the latter reported that they intend to read the report sometime in the future.

The dissuading stance

Political science professor and Hoover Institution fellow Morris Fiorina was not surprised by these statistics.

“How do [students] think of the report? They don’t,” Fiorina said.

Fiorina’s feels that a lack of student interest in Mueller’s investigation may come from the University’s emphasis on science and technology. Fiorina believes that students at universities with a greater liberal arts focus compared to Stanford, such as Harvard and Princeton, might be more engaged.

“My general view is that ordinary people pay almost no attention to things like this,” Fiorina said. “This is ‘inside baseball’ and the only people who were really paying attention to the whole investigation were people whose minds were already made up on one side or the other.”

Fiorina argued that students should not read the report because the material covered is beyond the general population’s level of political intellect. He believes students should leave analysis of the report to policymakers.

“I know that sounds cynical,” he said. “But I’ve been studying politics for 50 years … you’re wasting your time.”

According to Fiorina, the average person will not understand the report. Fiorina said he read highlights of the arguments on both sides –– in support and in opposition to charges of obstruction of justice against Trump –– and even he was not able to interpret them.

Fiorina summed up the report as a favorable conclusion to the investigation from the Republican perspective.

“[The Republicans] heard the big [news]: he’s not a traitor … he’s not a Russian agent … let’s move on,” Fiorina said.

On the other hand, he said the report served as a source of encouragement to Democrats towards efforts of impeachment. But Fiorina believes that this hope is misplaced.

Fiorina compared the Mueller investigation to former United States circuit judge Kenneth Starr’s 1994 investigation of former President Bill Clinton. Clinton was tried by the Senate in 1999 for perjury and obstruction of justice after denying accusations about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Not only did Clinton remain in office, but according to NPR, his approval rating in the Gallup Poll rose. He predicts a similar outcome for President Trump.

“If the Democrats want to win the election,” Fiorina said, “they ought to pivot back to real issues.”

Most importantly, Fiorina said that reading the report is futile because it did not yield any definitive conclusions. In the introduction to the first volume of the report, Mueller wrote “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

According to Fiorina, nearly everybody agrees that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” as Mueller reported. Yet Fiorina argues that the report failed to clarify the extent to which this interference had an effect on the election.

Fiorina believes the report “[is] not going to play much of a role [in American politics] if there’s no smoking gun, no bottom line … It’s just going to pass over.”

The encouraging stance

In contract to Fiorina, law professor David Sklansky encouraged students to read the Mueller report, calling it a conclusive investigation in an interview with The Daily.

“[The report made it] absolutely clear that a hostile foreign government massively interfered with our presidential election,” Sklansky said. “The litany of efforts by the President to obstruct an investigation into Russian interference into the election –– detailed by the report –– is pretty damning.”

Unlike Fiorina, Sklansky believes the Mueller report is not a victory for the Republicans, despite Trump’s attempts to convince the public that Mueller found no evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia and completely exonerated him.

Skansly encouraged all students to read the Mueller report in full. As opposed to Fiorina, Sklansky believes students will have no trouble understanding its arguments.

“The report’s there, anybody can read it,” Slansky said.

According to Sklansky, much of the confusion surrounding the report was caused by Barr and the circumstances surrounding the report’s publication.

Nearly a month before its release, Barr published a letter supposedly summarizing Mueller’s key findings. According to Slansky, Barr’s summary understated the extent to which the Russian government had interfered in the American election and mischaracterized Mueller’s reasoning and findings.

“[Barr] said that the report suggested that the Russians tried to interfere with our election,” Sklansky said. “In fact, the report said that the Russians had interfered in our election in a massive and systematic way.”

Further, Sklansky pointed out that the Department of Justice holds the enduring belief that it cannot indict a sitting president.

“Mueller said he thought it was inappropriate for the Department of Justice to conclude that the President had obstructed justice, since the president couldn’t be criminally tried while he was in office,” Slansky said.

However, Barr’s summary stated that the report’s “determination was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”

“The attorney general was willing to mislead the American people … in order to help the President,” said Sklansky.

According to Slansky, Barr’s letter is evidence that Donald Trump has turned the presidency into an authoritarian government that uses the law as a tool to go after his opponents.

“We’ve had a long tradition in the United States of respecting the independence of judicial processes,” said Sklansky.“ [But] Donald Trump doesn’t believe in that. There’s no such thing as principle. It’s all about strength … That’s the bottom line. I think the report makes it clear. And I think that anybody who’s not sure whether that’s what the report does or not, should read the report himself or herself.”

Like Slansky, communication professor Jeff Hancock also encouraged students to read the report.

“It’s easy to be told what to think about something and, and Lord knows there’s enough stuff going on and we can’t pay attention to everything,” he said. “For me, it’s more about making our own decisions based on what is a very objective and, I think, very readable document.”

Hancock believes the report would be interesting and informative to anyone, regardless of political affiliation.

“If you’re against Trump, then this is important to read because it’s not exonerating,” he said. “And if you’re pro Trump, I think this gives you insights into why Mueller decided not to press charges.”

If anything, Hancock added, the report is a compelling read.

“It reads just like a story,” he said, “it gives you insight into how government works and how the current administration operates.”

Contact Caroline Ghisolfi at ceg1998 ‘at’ stanford.edu.