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The last-minute drama about the Mueller report’s release, explained

We learned that William Barr will give a pre-report press conference — and that DOJ has briefed the White House.

Robert Mueller testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On the eve of the Mueller report’s public release, a new controversy has erupted about whether Attorney General William Barr is attempting to spin the special counsel’s findings to the benefit of President Donald Trump.

The Justice Department announced earlier this week that they’d release Mueller’s report, both to Congress and the public, on Thursday. But they only announced on Wednesday afternoon that Barr himself would give a press conference about the report Thursday morning.

Now Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is claiming that the Justice Department will only release Mueller’s report after Barr’s presser. And a senior department official soon confirmed to reporters that that was indeed the plan — meaning Barr will have the opportunity to publicly present his spin on its findings before reporters questioning him get to actually read the report, and duplicating the situation in late March where Barr released his own characterization of Mueller’s findings first.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that Justice Department officials have had “numerous” conversations with White House lawyers about Mueller’s “conclusions” in recent days — making clear the White House has had an extensive heads-up on what’s coming and time to work on a rebuttal. Together, all this suggests Barr’s Justice Department is bending over backward to help President Trump politically, rather than trying to assert its independence from the White House.

Barr plans to give a press conference tomorrow morning — before he releases Mueller’s report

President Trump himself who first announced Wednesday afternoon, during a radio interview, that Barr planned to hold a press conference about the Mueller report on Thursday. This news came as a surprise to reporters, who had gotten no such heads-up.

Shortly after that, the Justice Department announced that this press conference would take place at 9:30 am Eastern, and that both Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be present.

Many journalists found the timing of the press conference odd — because the Justice Department did not explain whether the long-awaited report itself would be released before, during, or after it. After all, it would be difficult for reporters to ask informed questions about Mueller’s findings if they don’t get a chance to read through them beforehand.

And Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, soon claimed that the Justice Department told him that they indeed planned to release the report only after Barr’s press conference — around 11 am or 12 pm Eastern.

A senior Justice Department official then confirmed that timeline to reporters, saying the plan was to send the report to Congress on CDs between 11 am and noon Eastern, and then to post it online.

So the 9:30 am press conference will give Barr one last chance to attempt to set the narrative about the report’s findings before the press and the public actually get to read the document for themselves. It will also likely have the handy consequence of producing footage of Barr defending Trump that can be played on television all day during coverage of the report.

What’s curious about this is that Barr claimed just last month that he wouldn’t try to summarize Mueller’s report. “I do not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report,” he wrote in a March 29 letter to Nadler. But apparently, his thinking has changed — CNN reported Wednesday that Barr plans to give an overview of the report at the press conference.

As for Mueller himself, he will not be in attendance at this press conference, and the other prosecutors on his team won’t be there either, a spokesperson told Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn.

The Justice Department has been briefing the White House

One person who is not still in suspense about the report, it seems, is President Trump.

During congressional testimony last week, Barr answered several questions related to the report, but then conspicuously declined to say whether he had been talking to the White House about Mueller’s findings.

Then, on Sunday, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl said that the White House had in fact been briefed by the Justice Department, and that as a result “there is significant concern on the president’s team about what will be in this report.”

On Wednesday evening, the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos, and Katie Benner confirmed that, writing that Justice Department officials “have had numerous conversations with White House lawyers” about Mueller’s findings in recent days.

Is this ethical, on Barr’s part? One could argue that the investigation is over, so it’s not like Barr is interfering with it by briefing the White House. And he is choosing to disclose information about someone who wasn’t charged with any crime, so giving that person (Trump) a heads-up could be viewed as a courtesy.

But it does seem like what’s happening here is that the attorney general is giving the president — who is both his boss, and a subject of this investigation — political help, and giving Trump time to plan his response and wage his own spin war. And that raises the prospect of the politicization of justice.

In then-FBI Director James Comey’s much-criticized public statement about his findings in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, he made clear that he hadn’t given anyone else in the government (outside the FBI) a heads-up on his plans. “They do not know what I am about to say,” he said. Barr, for his part, seems to be veering far to the other extreme.

Barr exonerated Trump on obstruction — but Mueller didn’t

Looming over all this is the fact that Barr played a major role in winding down this investigation — by declaring, in a March 24 letter to Congress, that Mueller had not found “sufficient” evidence “to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

This raised eyebrows because Mueller himself said no such thing. His actual findings on this topic remain shrouded in mystery, but in one of the few direct quotes from the report Barr has released, Mueller writes: “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

So Mueller didn’t exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice, but Barr quickly did. (It also just so happens that, before Trump nominated him, Barr wrote a lengthy memo criticizing what he believed to be the Mueller team’s approach on the obstruction of justice issue, which he submitted to the Justice Department and the White House.)

After Barr’s letter, leaks suggested that some Mueller team members weren’t all that happy with how Barr had characterized their findings, particularly on the topic of obstruction. They thought that evidence against President Trump on obstruction of justice “was much more acute than Barr suggested,” one person who knew of their complaints told the Washington Post.

The Post also revealed that Mueller had prepared summaries of different sections of the report designed for speedy public disclosure — but that Barr didn’t use them.

Now, with these plans for a narrative-setting press conference, the attorney general again seems to want the public to hear his version of the facts before getting to see Mueller’s own words.

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