The Logic of Mueller’s Statement


“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

Those are the words of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who yesterday provided a very brief summary of his now concluded investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presisdential election. You can view Mueller’s announcement below or read his full remarks here.

There has been some disagreement over the implications of Mueller’s statement. Nathan Salmon (UCSB) discusses this in a public Facebook post:

Some talking heads evidently think it is still an open question whether Mueller uncovered sufficient evidence (sufficient for an hypothetical indictment) that Trump committed obstruction of justice, because Mueller says he wasn’t authorized to make that determination. But obviously if the latter is true, then Mueller also wasn’t authorized to make a determination concerning whether Trump conspired with Russia, yet Mueller explicitly says that he found insufficient evidence that Trump conspired with Russia. Mueller goes further: he says that there is also insufficient evidence to exonerate Trump of obstruction. And he insists his report “speaks for itself.”

He is clearly inviting his audience to draw the obvious inference: if Mueller had found insufficient evidence that Trump obstructed justice, Mueller would have said so & would thereby have exonerated Trump of obstruction of justice. He didn’t say so & didn’t thereby exonerate Trump; therefore, it is not the case that Mueller found insufficient evidence that Trump obstructed justice. That is, although he can’t officially say so, Mueller found sufficient evidence (sufficient for an hypothetical indictment) that Trump obstructed justice.

Mueller’s unspoken position is this: “I’m not allowed to say that Trump obstructed justice. But if Trump hadn’t obstructed justice, I could say so & I would have. I didn’t. In fact, I explicitly said that I’m not saying that. You do the math.”

David Chalmers replies:

question: does not finding insufficient evidence entail finding sufficient evidence? or it is possible to be in an in-between state where one neither finds insufficient evidence or sufficient evidence? i guess it depends on whether or not “finding” creates an intentional context here. if it does, i.e. if “finding sufficient evidence” is like “find that the evidence is sufficient”, then presumably an in-between state is possible. if it doesn’t, i.e. if “finding sufficient evidence” is like “touching sufficient evidence”, then presumably the entailment goes through. so trump has some very narrow breathing room as long as mueller is using “finding” the first way and was genuinely unsure whether the evidence was insufficient or sufficient. who knew that the upshot would turn on excluded middle in intentional contexts?

He adds:

it might be that in this special context finding creates a forced choice that excludes the middle: i.e. since prosecutors normally need to decide whether or not to proceed with a charge, they normally must either find that there is sufficient evidence to proceed or find that there is insufficient evidence to proceed. mueller wasn’t in quite that situation here, but it’s arguable that he would still apply the same principle, i.e. if he didn’t find that there’s sufficient evidence, then he’d report that there’s insufficient evidence.

Salmon responds:

Granting this subtle issue, I think Mueller is tacitly inviting his audience to draw the cited inference even if it is strictly invalid. (I suspect Mueller is tacitly assuming that, in the present case, whether evidence is sufficient for an hypothetical indictment is sufficiently transparent to a prosecutor.) He is clearly annoyed that Barr might have muddied the water sufficiently to prevent analysts from seeing his point: “I can’t officially say that Trump obstructed justice. But if he hadn’t obstructed justice, I could say so and I would have. And I didn’t say so, now did I? In fact, I explicitly said that I’m *not* saying that. You do the math. I’ve done my part. So Congress, get with the program & do yours. The evidence you need is all laid out in Volume II.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Matt McAdam (Johns Hopkins University Press) writes:

So confused. Mueller says, (1) if we were confident president did not commit a crime, we would have said so & (2) we concluded we would not reach a determination one way or another about whether the president committed a crime. You cannot assert both of these.

He adds:

They could’ve asserted (a) Trump committed a crime or (b) Trump did not commit a crime. He explained that, since a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, they wouldn’t assert either ((2) above). But in (1) above he says that they would’ve asserted (b) if they could’ve… And by “if they could’ve” I mean: had sufficient evidence to support (b).

And then clarifies:

There is a contradiction in what he said. He said: (1) we decided not to determine “one way or another” whether Trump obstructed; and he said, (2) we would’ve said that he didn’t obstruct justice if we had sufficient evidence for that. That’s a contradiction.

Philosophers, do you have thoughts on the logic of Mueller’s remarks?


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Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
2 years ago

The question is whether his speech act amounts to this: (We found [not in]sufficient evidence). (I am not going to worry about the words in the square brackets can be struck.) Clearly, the sentence he uttered ‘If we had found sufficient evidence to exonerate, we would have said so’ does not imply this. But he did say that he hadn’t found sufficient evidence of collusion with Russia. The two speech acts taken together imply at least that the situation is asymmetric: had he determined evidence to be insufficient, he was permitted to say so, but if he had found it to be sufficient, he was not allowed to do so. So we can conclude that he didn’t determine that the evidence of obstruction was insufficient. Further, we cannot conclude that he did not find it sufficient. But there does seem to be a leap from this to saying that he found it not insufficient. Thus, while there is no upper bound on how damning his finding was, the lower bound extends into the no-finding-at-all range. (I am not sure what to make of McAdam’s contradiction. Decided not to determine one way or another is different from didn’t determine one way or another. The DoJ ruling on indictability doesn’t force a public proclamation of not-guilty, as the Russia collusion case proves. Note, of course, that not-guilty is not equal to innocent.)Report

Thatch
Thatch
2 years ago

Imagine you are presented two Schrödinger boxes to inspect. You’re empowered to open them whenever you decide it’s appropriate, but you’re only allowed to report if what you see is a dead cat. The rules are, you cannot report that you see a live cat, you can report a dead cat but not a live one. You can report the presence of a heartbeat, respiration, movement, etc., but you cannot say “this cat is alive”.Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  Thatch
2 years ago

Occam meets Schrödinger.

The current situation is really just as simple as it seems. No “logical” reason to continue to flay (and obfuscate with philosophical “techniques”), the story proper and waffle around about the obvious and crystal-clear proper course of action, given that:
Mueller was prohibited from reporting that the cat was alive
Mueller did report (very significant) signs-of-life.

Now it’s up to someone else to verify life (based on that clear evidence, that is clear enough ti justify the process of “verifying”).

All else is just masturbatory philosophical-gaslighting.Report

PK
PK
2 years ago

Say that “have confidence that P” means that one is 95% certain that P is true. Then, Mueller thinks that the probability that Trump is guilty is less than 95% (so he doesn’t have confidence in Trump being guilty), but more than 5% (so he doesn’t have confidence in Trump being innocent). So, if P=Trump is guilty, Mueller will only announce a verdict if his credence in P is above 95%. On the other hand, if his credence in P is less than 5%, then it follows that his credence in not-P is more than 95%, and he could announce the opposite verdict (that Trump is not guilty). But it seems that the evidence isn’t clear either way so his credence in P falls somewhere in between 5% and 95%. Usually in courts we have the presumption of innocence, because we don’t want to risk jailing an innocent, so we will let someone go even if we’re not confident in them being innocent (=there’s a higher than 5% chance that they’re guilty). However, now we are talking about the president, so we should be more careful than that. If he’s not proven innocent, maybe we shouldn’t take the risk? It’s better to deny presidency for an innocent than risk letting the guilty be president, especially when it’s about colluding with a foreign state.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  PK
2 years ago

I think he is not allowed to say the President is guilty. (It’s not just that he is constrained by prudential considerations.) So, he may be 97% convinced, but he still can’t say it. That’s why there’s no upper bound on his confidence of guilt.Report

Dave Estlund
Dave Estlund
2 years ago

On Matt McAdam’s concern:

“we concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime.”

This may seem to contradict the earlier statement that if they had evidence to exonerate, they would do so, but they don’t have it.

But i don’t believe there is a contradiction, since it could mean to speak of a conclusion drawn after determining they lacked evidence to exonerate. As they see it, that settles that they won’t exonerate, and the regulation settles that they won’t accuse. So together they settle that they will “not reach a determination one way or the other.”
Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

I’m not sure I get it, but maybe I’m closer to DC. Let’s suppose NS is correct:

“I’m not allowed to say that Trump obstructed justice. But if Trump hadn’t obstructed justice, I could say so & I would have. I didn’t. In fact, I explicitly said that I’m not saying that. You do the math.”

Why can’t the math just be that Mueller isn’t sure, or lacks the relevant legal basis to reach a more robust conclusion? If Trump had NOT done it, then Mueller would have said that. If Trump HAD done it, he can’t say that, either. (He actually can, but set that aside.) But clearly it’s possible that there’s something in between those two, which is that Mueller doesn’t know for sure one way or the other.* And in that scenario, he said exactly what we’d expect him to say. NS wants to reach the stronger conclusion that this is somehow ruled out and we should infer something more critical. But that just doesn’t follow because there are other possibilities.

*Remember, this is a legal question: the question isn’t what Trump actually did or didn’t do, but what relationship the available evidence bears to any putative actions. It’s clearly possible that Trump did something but that we nevertheless have no basis to proceed on anything. (This might sound controversial, but it’s just obvious. Merely because A commits some crime X isn’t remotely sufficient to prosecute A for X–because you need all sorts of other stuff, too. Commission of the crime is neither necessary nor sufficient for prosecution.) Report

Mike Davey
Mike Davey
2 years ago

“There is a contradiction in what he said. He said: (1) we decided not to determine “one way or another” whether Trump obstructed; and he said, (2) we would’ve said that he didn’t obstruct justice if we had sufficient evidence for that. That’s a contradiction.”

There is no contradiction here.

*Deciding* not to determine does not mean they *couldn’t* determine. It’s clear, to me at least, that the deciding has been left up to Congress who, as Mueller states by inference, has sufficient evidence to determine there *was* obstruction. Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  Mike Davey
2 years ago

And, strictly speaking they absolutely could have “determined” (and perhaps even did), they were just constrained from stating a specific form of what was “determined”.

It’s also clear to me that what was otherwise stated in the report establishes that further consideration by some entity, that *can* state that form, or even it’s contrary, is absolutely and logically (in the purest philosophical sense of the word), warranted: in fact, compelled. If someone thinks otherwise, I’d like to know what fallacy is being committed.Report

zach
zach
2 years ago

In the bit that was quoted, I took Mueller simply to be rebuking the president: “No, Mr. President, it was not a ‘total exoneration’. If it had been a total exoneration, we would have said so. Stop lying.”

Arguably, there was an implicature elsewhere in Mueller’s statement: “The opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

If this precedent played no role whatsoever in the decision not to indict Trump, why include this?Report

observer
observer
2 years ago

(1). If we were confident trump was innocent, we would have said so
(2). We did not say so
(C). We are not confident that trump was innocent (by modus tollens).

Does (C) imply that Mueller is confident that trump is guilty? Not necessarily– he could just be agnostic. I’m not confident that the number of stars is even, but i’m also not confident that the number of stars is not even.

Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Problem: natural language, even natural language that is aiming at some logical precision, will leave its logical meanings underdetermined.

Solution: Ask Mueller to testify so that his intended logical meaning can be better understood and thus help fix the problem. Report

Joshua Blanchard
2 years ago

Readers might be interested to know that the DOJ and Special Counsel spokespersons put out a joint statement that seems to go out of its way to cancel the suggestion heard by some that the OLC opinion was the only thing keeping Mueller from finding Trump guilty of obstruction. The statement says the following:

“The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the OLC opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination — one way or the other — about whether the President committed a crime. There is no conflict between these statements.”

For some ideologically diverse reporting:
https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/29/robert-mueller-william-barr-1346881
https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/mueller-and-barr-blast-misinterpretations-no-conflict-on-obstructionReport

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Joshua Blanchard
2 years ago

Am I the only one to whom it appears that the DOJ statement and Mueller’s statment are in conflict? If not necessarily in letter, then in spirit?Report

Joshua Blanchard
Reply to  krell_154
2 years ago

They do seem in conflict, which I assume is part of why the joint statement was deemed necessary.

One possible reconciliation—taking on board the joint statement that I posted—is that there are non-exonerating reasons other than the OLC opinion that would have prevented the Special Counsel’s office from finding Trump guilty of obstruction. I’m not a legal expert in any way and so it seems silly for me to speculate, but I can at least imagine the Special Counsel’s office thinking that Congress is best-suited to make a determination of guilt in this case even if the hypothetical scenario where the OLC opinion is different.Report

krell_154
krell_154
2 years ago

I think the standard philosophical approach to the analysis of these statements might miss the mark somewhat. It would be great if someone with detailed knowledge of legalistic jargon and legal conventions could step in and shed further light on thisReport

Inglorious Adjunct
Inglorious Adjunct
2 years ago

I haven’t had time to follow all of this conversation, but I would have thought that there are four possible outcomes of the investigation w.r.t. whether Trump committed obstruction of justice (hereafter “Obstruction”):

1) Mueller found insufficient evidence for Obstruction.
2) Mueller found sufficient evidence for Obstruction.
3) Mueller found insufficient evidence for ~Obstruction.
4) Mueller found sufficient evidence for ~Obstruction.

Where the ‘~’ indicates negation.

Mueller clearly denies (4), and I take it he affirms (3). But denying (4) and affirming (3) is consistent with (1) and (2), though not both. (1) & ~(2) & (3) & ~(4) is the situation wherein Mueller found the evidence for Obstruction to be inconclusive and the evidence for ~Obstruction to be inconclusive. ~(1) & (2) & (3) & ~(4) is the situation wherein Mueller found the evidence for Obstruction to be conclusion, which rules out ~Obstruction. It seems to me that Mueller is just not saying which of these scenarios is the case: (1) & ~(2) & (3) & ~(4), on the one hand, and ~(1) & (2) & (3) & ~(4), on the other.Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  Inglorious Adjunct
2 years ago

Uh…..yep. Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
2 years ago

My takeaway is that, whatever Mueller said, it’s not obvious what he said.Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  driftinCowboy
2 years ago

That depends. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
2 years ago

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

A bit of formalism will help here. Let ‘G’ mean ‘Trump committed a crime’. Let ‘M[G]’ mean ‘the Mueller probe concludes that Trump committed a crime’, and ‘M[~G]’ mean ‘the Mueller probe concludes that Trump did not commit a crime’. For simplicity, we can take the ‘we would have said so’ to just be ‘M[~G]’ and ‘We did not make a determination …’ to just be ~M[G] & ~M[~G]. That is, they neither concluded that he did commit a crime nor that he dd not commit a crime. Let n be the threshold for a credence counting as confidence that someone clearly did or did not something. Let ‘Cr’ be the credence function for those behind the Mueller probe. This gives us:

(1) Cr(~G) ≥ n □→ M[~G] for the first sentence
(2) ~M[G] & ~M[~G] for the second sentence
(3) ~M[~G] from (2), &Elimination
(4) ~(Cr(~G) ≥ n) (1), (3), modus tollens

[This is assuming we have modus tollens for counterfactuals, which we do on standard accounts. If we don’t then we can conclude even less.] Now, ~(Cr(~G) ≥ n) is mathematically equivalent to:

(5) Cr(~G) 1 – n.

But it’s basically a conceptual truth that .5 n and even Cr(G) = 1. But it implies nothing of the sort.

So having insufficient confidence that someone did not do something is not equivalent to having sufficient confidence that they did do it. This seems pretty obvious. But maybe I’m missing something? Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Hmm… a portion of my comment got eaten… Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Everything before (5) is fine. The rest should read as follows:

(5) Cr(~G) 1 – n

But it’s basically a conceptual truth that .5 < n ≤ 1 (certainly the latter inequality is). To be confident in something requires at least being more confident than not that it is true. Where n falls in the range is more controversial, but it’s probably much closer to 1 than .5. I would say .9 is a reasonable guess. But then it follows that 1 – n has to be less than .5, and is likely to be closer to .1. In other words, the quote above can’t even tell us that the Mueller team thought it more likely than not that Trump committed a crime. It is, of course, compatible with Cr(G) being 1. But it implies nothing of the sort.

So having insufficient confidence that someone did not do something is not equivalent to having sufficient confidence that they did do it. This seems pretty obvious. But maybe I’m missing something?Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Lol. It did it again. Seems like the ‘less than’ and ‘greater than’ signs are the problem. I”ll try one more time without them. Again, starting at (5):

(5) Cr(~G) is less than n

[If it’s not greater than or equal to n then it’s less than n.] In other words, the Mueller probe had insufficient confidence that Trump didn’t commit a crime. But this doesn’t tell us much about their confidence that he did commit a crime. Basic probability theory tells us Cr(~G) = 1 – Cr(G). Hence,

(6) Cr(G) is greater than 1 – n

But it’s basically a conceptual truth that n is between .5 and 1. To be confident in something requires at least being more confident than not that it is true. Where n falls in the range is more controversial, but it’s probably much closer to 1 than .5. I would say .9 is a reasonable guess. But then it follows that 1 – n has to be less than .5, and is likely to be closer to .1. In other words, the quote above can’t even tell us that the Mueller team thought it more likely than not that Trump committed a crime. It is, of course, compatible with Cr(G) being 1. But it implies nothing of the sort.

So having insufficient confidence that someone did not do something is not equivalent to having sufficient confidence that they did do it. This seems pretty obvious. But maybe I’m missing something?Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

There we go. Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

I have been fascinated with the “process” of philosophy for decades. While i appreciate the [potential] elegance of that process well-performed, I learned long ago to appreciate, to an even greater degree, the subtle beauty (of which only real philosophers seem to be aware), in acknowledging that some topics are utterly mal-served by insisting on applying that machinery/those “techniques”:, to everything.

Real masters feel no need to spout complexity, when simplicity is enough. The best response to the challenge that kicked off this thread, is obviously “mu”,Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Thatch
2 years ago

Good response to a Zen Koan. But a koan is an inherently anti-philosophical piece of ascetic practice meant to transform the habits of the mind rather than being a witty quip to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Moreover, the proper zen response to the challenge is to relinquish any attachment to politics altogether. If trump burns the world, he burns the world. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. This is also the zen response to quantum mechanics and other forms of complex science, since they also born of attachment and a will to change the world and are thus ultimately futile. But somehow I doubt you were advocating asceticism based in a supernatural metaphysics aimed at ending the cycle of rebirth.

If you just want to understand some claim about evidence a little bit of formalism might help. Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

What does your philosophy say about irony? How about pedantry? Your simplistic reduction captures just one way to think about koans. I’m sorry the clear “logic” linking my use of that metaphor in this context didn’t reveal itself to you.

Mu. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Thatch
2 years ago

No, you were just putting forth another form of anti-intellectualism. The post called for an analysis of a statement. Many analytic philosophers find that sort of thing fun. But many people seem to be threatened by the very idea of formal analyses, as they undermine the idea that philosophy must be like poetry, or some silly nonsense like that. You were basically just saying you hate “worthless logic chopping”. We get it. Though I find that the people who hate “worthless logic choping” also tend to be bad reasoners in general, and probably aren’t likely to understand the simple informal claim that insufficient evidence that someone did not do something is not sufficient evidence that they did do it.Report

Thatch
Thatch
Reply to  Thatch
2 years ago

Thank you for telling me what I was saying Yaggi. “Anti-intellectualism”? The irony there is rich!

I assure you I can diagram an argument along with the best, I just chose (in this case), to refer to the higher-level philosophical foundation that establishes the very purpose for diagramming arguments, by jumping straight to the conclusion, using the self-same method actually. I suggested you also take a 10th-grade logic class as well.

Trump should be investigated further. Thanks for playing.

Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Thatch
2 years ago

Ah, I see. I mistook breathless political wishful thinking for anti-intellectualism. My mistake. Though, to be fair, the two tend to go hand in hand.

I teach formal logic at my university. I can assure you that the purpose of a logical argument is not to get you whatever conclusion you want while ignoring your premises. Your desired conclusion does not follow from what Mueller said in any remotely obvious way.

Moreover, your desired conclusion is very obviously false. For one, it is never the job of a prosecutor or an investigator to establish innocence. Thus the fact that the report failed to exonerate Trump is really neither here nor there from a legal perspective, though it certainly counts as bad optics for Trump. Second, do you really think congress is going to a better job investigating the Trump administration than the FBI? When they have vastly fewer resources and the Trump administration can just claim executive privilege? The only plausible wishful interpretation in the vicinity is that Mueller is suggesting that congress begin impeachment proceedings for obstruction of justice on the evidence already gathered. Of course, there’s no chance that will pass the Senate. So the dems start a further investigation knowing full well that it is futile in order to avoid the humiliation and political backlash that would inevitably follow a failed attempt at impeachment, in what is nothing more than a transparent attempt to appease their base.

I’m hardly a fan of Trump, but it’s time to move on and beat him on policies. Report

Nathan Salmon
Nathan Salmon
2 years ago

For the record (though this is somewhat off-topic), my own view is that Mueller has not “done his part.” Barr says that although Mueller could not indict Trump while Trump is a sitting president, Mueller could have officially determined that Trump obstructed justice or committed other crimes. I would go further than Barr on this point: Mueller had a clear obligation to issue an official determination concerning whether Trump committed crimes. That was as much his job as it is our job to submit official grades for students enrolled in our courses. Mueller’s argument that it would have been unfair to Trump for Mueller to have officially determined that Trump committed a crime (because Trump couldn’t then avail himself of the courts to prove his innocence) is transparently weak. (Not to mention that Trump would surely have availed himself of Barr and the full resources of the DOJ to “prove,” or at least to declare, his innocence.) History will likely judge Mueller negatively for having failed in his duty to reach an official determination regarding Trump’s guilt or innocence.Report