(23:51) Barr could have easily released the Mueller Report Executive Summary much sooner.
The fact that it was withheld allowed a false narrative to take hold.
Attorney General William P. Barr sent a letter to Congress last month citing brief fragments from the Mueller report. Now that the document is public, his selections are coming under scrutiny.
Mr. Barr took Mr. Mueller’s words out of context to suggest the president had no motive to obstruct justice
“In making this determination, we noted that the special counsel recognized that ‘the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,’ and that, while not determinative, the absence of such evidence bears upon the president’s intent with respect to obstruction.”
Vol. II, Page 157: Obstruction of justice can be motivated by a desire to protect noncriminal personal interests, to protect against investigations where underlying criminal liability falls into a gray area, or to avoid personal embarrassment. The injury to the integrity of the justice system is the same regardless of whether a person committed an underlying wrong. In this investigation, the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. But the evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the president’s conduct. These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and potential uncertainty about whether certain events — such as advance notice of WikiLeaks’ release of hacked information or the June 9, 2016, meeting between senior campaign officials and Russians could be seen as criminal activity by the president, his campaign or his family.
Mr. Barr, in explaining why he was declaring Mr. Trump cleared of obstructing justice, cited this sentence fragment about how the evidence Mr. Mueller had gathered did not prove there had been any conspiracy with Russia for Mr. Trump to cover up. This use of Mr. Mueller’s words turned the special counsel’s meaning on its head: The brief excerpt came from a list of other possible reasons Mr. Trump might have had to corruptly impede the investigation, and which Mr. Barr did not mention.
Mr. Barr omitted words suggesting that there was complicit conduct that fell short of “coordination”
FROM WILLIAM P. BARR
“The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’”
FROM ROBERT S. MUELLER III
Vol. I, Page 1:The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.
Mr. Barr took a larger passage in which the Mueller report suggested that the Trump campaign and the Russian government were knowingly dancing together at a distance, and then excerpted a fragment to make it look like a cleaner exoneration.
Similarly, Mr. Barr truncated the special counsel explanation of what “coordination” meant — and didn’t mean
“In assessing potential conspiracy charges, the special counsel also considered whether members of the Trump campaign ‘coordinated’ with Russian election interference activities. The special counsel defined ‘coordination’ as an ‘agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.’”
FROM ROBERT S. MUELLER III
Vol. I, Page 2:We understood coordination to require an agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.
In the second sentence, which Mr. Barr omitted, Mr. Mueller again emphasized that there can be a type of complicit conduct that falls short of how the special counsel defined coordination.
Mr. Barr omitted the reason Mr. Mueller trumpeted the thoroughness of his factual investigation
FROM WILLIAM P. BARR
“After making a ‘thorough factual investigation’ into these matters, the special counsel considered whether to evaluate the conduct under department standards governing prosecution and declination decisions but ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment.”
FROM ROBERT S. MUELLER III
Vol. II, Page 2: Second, while the O.L.C. opinion concludes that a sitting president may not be prosecuted, it recognizes that a criminal investigation during the president’s term is permissible. The O.L.C. opinion also recognizes that a president does not have immunity after he leaves office. And if individuals other than the president committed an obstruction offense, they may be prosecuted at this time. Given those considerations, the facts known to us, and the strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system, we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.
In his letter to Congress, Mr. Barr did not explain that Mr. Mueller was trying to leave open the possibility that prosecutors in the future, after Mr. Trump leaves office, could look at the evidence he gathered and decide then whether to indict Mr. Trump. That rationale — which stemmed from the view of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, or O.L.C., that sitting presidents cannot be indicted but former presidents lose such immunity — conflicted with Mr. Barr’s move to pronounce Mr. Trump cleared now.
Mr. Barr portrayed Mr. Mueller as encountering “difficult issues” in reaching a decision on obstruction
FROM WILLIAM P. BARR
“The special counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the special counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the president’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The special counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”
Mr. Mueller used those two phrases twice, in slightly different formulations:
FROM ROBERT S. MUELLER III
Vol. II, Page 2: Fourth, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
Vol. II, Page 8: Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president’s conduct. The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
In his letter, Mr. Barr did not explain why the special counsel had demurred from making any prosecutorial judgment on obstruction beyond a cryptic reference to what he said Mr. Mueller had described as “difficult issues” of law and fact. His suggestion was that these unspecified issues prevented Mr. Mueller from making a call “one way or the other.” In fact, Mr. Mueller made clear that the difficulties resided in accusing Mr. Trump of committing a crime; if the facts had exonerated him, he would have been willing to say so.
said, ‘Bob, what’s with the letter?’ ” Attorney General William Barrrecounted in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “ ‘Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?’ ” Bob—that is, Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election—had sent Barr the letter on March 27th, three days after Barr had released his own letter purporting, in four pages, to convey the principal conclusions of Mueller’s more than four-hundred-page report. Mueller had been fairly clear about what was, as Barr put it, with the letter: Barr’s statement “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” And, in its wake, there was “now public confusion.” Barr told Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, that the letter had prompted him to call Mueller, on speaker phone, while several people, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, were in the room with him. As Blumenthal questioned Barr about his subsequent exchange with Mueller, Barr picked up what appeared to be a copy of Mueller’s letter and gave it a sour scan. “The letter’s a bit snitty,” he said. “I think it was probably written by one of his staff.”
“Snitty” is a word of relatively recent origin; Merriam-Webster traces the appearance of the underlying noun, “snit,” to 1939. It echoes something of the meaning of snipe and snip, and even snitch—of pettiness and petulance. It hardly seems right as a way to describe the concerns that Mueller—a man with a long and distinguished career in law enforcement—had about a possible blow to public confidence in his investigation, or in the Justice Department, or in both. And yet the complaint perfectly expresses the culture of the Trump Administration. Calling people “snitty” is a way of accusing them of being weak, mewling, and rule-bound, with a pathetic belief in fairness. It’s the bully’s retort upon being called out—expressing the same resentment that might, say, lead a President to commit what the Mueller report refers to as potentially “obstructive acts.” “Snitty” is used to conjure up the image of people whom one would rather ignore stamping their feet—which may be why Barr joined it with the supposition that the letter Mueller signed was written “by one of his staff.”
The question of what “staff” might be capable of was, it seems, already on Barr’s mind. After the Senate hearing, it emerged that he had decided not to appear at a parallel hearing in the House, scheduled for Thursday, supposedly because he objected to being questioned by lawyers on the committee staff rather than by the representatives themselves. The committee is responding with a flurry of subpoenas; the issue of the Trump Administration’s evasions of congressional oversight is not a new one, and it won’t go away. But Barr does a particularly bad job of hiding his disdain. At one point, Blumenthal asked him if anyone had taken notes of the “what’s with the letter” call. Barr confirmed that some people had done so. “May we have those notes?” Blumenthal asked.
“No,” Barr replied.
“Why not?” Blumenthal asked.
“Why should you have them?” Barr said.
Who do these senators think they are? Barr’s own recollection of the call was an exercise in blame. According to Barr, Mueller said that he was “concerned about the way the media was playing this” and wanted his executive summaries released in order to “avoid some of the confusion that was emerging.” Barr continued, “I asked him if he felt that my letter was misleading or inaccurate, and he said no, that the press—he felt that the press coverage was.” At this point, Barr has shown himself to be enough of an unreliable narrator that it makes sense to wait and learn if this is also Mueller’s recollection. (Mueller does not specifically mention the press in his letter.) But it is worth asking what Barr is saying here about the press: the coverage, up until then, was based only on his four-page letter. If the coverage was inaccurate or misleading, how might that have happened—was the press making things up? Barr doesn’t appear to mind implying that reporters either are incapable of basic reading comprehension or just act in bad faith. Earlier in the hearing, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, also raised what he called “the news-coverage issue” and asked Barr, “What were you supposed to do about that?” Noting that the report was now out, the senator called the whole matter moot and added, “None of us can control what the news publishes or prints, except the media.” Nor should anyone—but it would be helpful, sometimes, if the press had truthful material to work with. And Congress might do something about that.
The attorney general misled the public in seven key ways.
was willing to give Bill Barr a chance. Consider me burned.
When Barr was nominated, I wrote a cautious piece for this magazine declining to give him “a character reference” and acknowledging “legitimate reasons to be concerned about [his] nomination,” but nonetheless concluding that “I suspect that he is likely as good as we’re going to get. And he might well be good enough. Because most of all, what the department needs right now is honest leadership that will insulate it from the predations of the president.”
When he wrote his first letter to Congress announcing the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, I wrote another piece saying, “For the next two weeks, let’s give Attorney General William Barr the benefit of the doubt” on the question of releasing the report in a timely and not-too-redacted fashion.
I took a lot of criticism for these pieces—particularly the second one, in which I specifically said we should evaluate Barr’s actual performance in regard to releasing the Mueller report, and thus wait for him to act, rather than denouncing him preemptively.
Barr has now acted, and we can now evaluate his actual, rather than his hypothesized, performance.
It has been catastrophic. Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject. It is a kind of trope of political opposition in every administration that the attorney general—whoever he or she is—is politicizing the Justice Department and acting as a defense lawyer for the president. In this case it is true.
Barr has consistently sought to spin his department’s work in a highly political fashion, and he has done so to cast the president’s conduct in the most favorable possible light. Trump serially complained that Jeff Sessions didn’t act to “protect” him. Matthew Whitaker never had the stature or internal clout to do so effectively. In Barr, Trump has found his man.