Did Attorney General Bill Barr properly represent the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation?
The Times report, by Nicholas Fandos, Michael Schmidt, and Mark Mazzetti, came first. The sourcing for their claim was “government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations” — that is, the Times did not necessarily talk to members of Mueller’s famously leak-proof team. But the reporters describe what “some” Mueller team members have “told associates.” Another interesting detail is that Mueller’s team had prepared “multiple summaries of the report” — but Barr did not use them in his letter.
Then, the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima, Carol Leonnig, and Rosalind Helderman added more details. Evidence against President Trump on obstruction of justice “was much more acute than Barr suggested,” one person who knew of the complaints said. A separate source told them that Mueller’s summaries of different sections of the report were designed for speedy public disclosure, raising questions about why Barr didn’t rely on them.
And on Thursday morning, Ken Dilanian of NBC News added the detail that some on Mueller’s team have said the report paints “a picture of a campaign whose members were was manipulated by a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation.”
This reporting poses two major questions. First, how widespread is this feeling of frustration among special counsel team members? The Times defines the team broadly, saying it included “19 lawyers, about 40 F.B.I. agents, and other personnel.” But the paper is vague about how many people have complained, just saying “some” did. In any case, the fact that these complaints have spilled out to three different news outlets within 24 hours certainly suggests serious dissent.
Second, what do these Mueller team members think Barr failed to convey? The attorney general wrote in a letter to Congress that the special counsel did not “establish” a conspiracy between Trump associates and the Russian government to interfere with the election, and that he declined to render a prosecutorial judgment on obstruction of justice. Is either of these, or both, misleading? Or did Barr leave out other important points?
Drama over the Mueller report
The Times piece was the first to suggest some behind-the-scenes drama and dissent about Barr’s handling of Mueller’s report.
On Friday, March 22, the Justice Department announced that Mueller had concluded his investigation and submitted this report to the attorney general. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reviewed it that weekend, and on March 24, Barr wrote a letter to Congress to advise them on Mueller’s “principal conclusions.”
First, Barr said, Mueller’s investigation found that though the Russian government tried to interfere with the 2016 election, the special counsel “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia” in these efforts.
Second, Barr said, Mueller probed the question of whether President Trump tried to obstruct justice in interfering with the Russia investigation — but “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” Barr went on to say, though, that upon his own review (conducted with Rosenstein), Mueller’s evidence “is not sufficient to establish” that Trump obstructed justice.
Trump soon put his own gloss on these findings: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.” (Barr’s summary in fact quoted Mueller saying he was not exonerating Trump on obstruction of justice.)
No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2019
And though some instantly accepted Barr’s findings, others were suspicious about whether there was more to the story. And these new reports suggest there may well be.
We may know more soon enough. Last Friday, Barr said he was on track to release the report to Congress and the public, with redactions of certain categories of information, by “mid-April, if not sooner.”
That wasn’t enough to mollify House Democrats, who are preparing to issue subpoenas to try and get Mueller’s full report. And the Times report will surely make them even more eager to do so.