It turns out that special counsel Robert Mueller was just as upset with Attorney General William Barr’s characterization of the Trump-Russia report — and the ensuing public discussion — as many Americans were.
On March 24, Barr released his four-page summary of the special counsel’s report in which he said Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And while Mueller didn’t absolve President Donald Trump of an obstruction of justice charge, Barr did, saying he didn’t think the evidence the special counsel’s team provided met that standard.
Days after the attorney general sent his summary to Congress, Mueller wrote the Justice Department leadership to say that Barr’s letter “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the full report.
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations,” he continued. To rectify the situation, Mueller recommended that Barr release the full 448-page report’s introduction and executive summaries.
A day after the letter was sent, Barr and Mueller spoke on the phone for around 15 minutes. Mueller complained that news coverage of the summary, particularly the obstruction bit, could mislead the public about what the report said. But when Barr pressed Mueller if the special counsel believed the summary was inaccurate, Mueller said he didn’t, according to the Washington Post.
This is a big moment. It further confirms — from the highest authority — that the initial skepticism expressed by many after the release of Barr’s summary was justified. The attorney general skewed the public impression of the report before even a full sentence was released, leading many to believe that the Trump campaign had done nothing wrong whatsoever.
But the report clearly shows that’s not true. For starters, even though Mueller says he did not establish that the Trump campaign criminally conspired with Russia on illegal election interference (nor that it coordinated with Russia through either an active or tacit agreement), there were multiple instances in which the Trump campaign interacted inappropriately with Russians.
Here’s just one example: Two Trump campaign officials, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates, were regularly providing polling information to a Russian national whom Gates believed to be a “spy.”
What’s more, the special counsel outlined 10 different “episodes” where the president may have obstructed justice, such as his multiple efforts to oust Mueller, efforts to curtail the Russia probe, and attempts to stop the public from seeing evidence. Perhaps most explosively, Mueller said in the report that Trump’s “efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Barr, of course, didn’t mention any of that. Instead, his summary painted a pretty rosy picture for the president that led multiple experts to say it was good news for Trump.
This is likely why Mueller wanted the whole report released.
Barr has some explaining to do
Though Mueller’s letter and subsequent conversations don’t condemn the attorney general, they add to the growing suspicions that Barr is acting more like Trump’s defender than the country’s lead justice official.
The morning of the Mueller report release, April 18, Barr gave a press conference to discuss the report hours before anyone could see it. He claimed beforehand that he would focus solely on process, but instead he literally uttered the phrase “no collusion” to describe Mueller’s conclusions — providing a perfect sound bite to play on loop on cable news in the president’s favorite phrasing.
At the end, when a reporter asked if it was improper for the attorney general to spin the report to the public before it was released, Barr literally walked off the stage.
REPORTER: Is it an impropriety for you to come out and sort of spin the report before people are able to read it?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 18, 2019
*walks away* pic.twitter.com/nXH4Tk3Fyd
Every administration appoints someone who aligns with its political views, but this definitely feels a bit different. Last June, when Barr was a private citizen, he wrote a secret memo arguing that the Mueller probe’s investigation into obstruction of justice by Trump was illegitimate — and sent it to the Justice Department.
In the memo, Barr outlined an extremely narrow theory of what would constitute obstruction of justice, arguing (among other things) that Trump could not have obstructed justice unless he had actually committed the underlying crime (criminal collusion with Russia).
When the letter’s existence was reported in December, after Trump had tapped Barr to be his next attorney general, its arguments were widely rejected by legal analysts, who saw it a definition of obstruction that would largely immunize the president from prosecution. Even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who once oversaw the Mueller probe and stood behind Barr during the press conference, even criticized it publicly.
“Our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have,” he said.
Perhaps it was then inevitable that Barr would hold Mueller’s investigation of Trump to the highest standard and that Mueller, in turn, would prefer more nuance. That, it seems, is exactly what happened.
Barr is set to testify in front of Congress this week — and he’s likely to field tough questions, particularly from Democrats, about all of this now.