On March 22, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr. Unfortunately, Barr did not just release the report and let it speak for itself. Before putting out a redacted version, he rushed to conclusions that differed in important respects from the report itself.
Two days after receiving the report, Attorney General Barr released a four-page document that he said was intended “to describe the report and to summarize the principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel and the results of his investigation.” When complaints began to surface that his summary was incomplete and misleading, he backtracked and denied that it was really a summary.
Barr’s conclusion on conspiracy
Recall what Mueller’s own summary said about a possible conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump Campaign:
As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. 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.
Attorney General Barr repeats what the report says about the Russians. But then he skips over the part about the links between the Russians and the Trump Campaign, as well as the part about the mutual benefits the parties were expecting. Barr goes right to his conclusion, “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.” In case anyone missed it, Barr repeats the conclusion in each of the following two paragraphs. Apparently, all the wrongdoing was by the Russians, and no misdeeds by Americans are worth mentioning.
Barr also leaves out Mueller’s qualifying statements: first, that a failure to establish facts does not prove the absence of those facts; and second, that the lies told by many suspects impeded the investigation in finding the facts.
At his press conference before he released the report, Barr did exactly what Mueller warned against, turning insufficient evidence of criminal conspiracy into a flat-out judgment of “no collusion,” Trump’s favorite talking point.
President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates….At the same time there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability, yet as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion.
Barr’s conclusion on obstruction
Mueller had found considerable evidence of obstruction of justice by President Trump. But he believed that Justice Department regulations prevented him both from indicting the President and from accusing him of a crime. “[W]e determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”
In his summary (or non-summary), Attorney General Barr just says, “The Special Counsel…did not draw a conclusion–one way or the other–as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” That’s technically true. But since Barr does not mention that Mueller was prevented by Department regulations from reaching a conclusion of criminal conduct, he leaves the reader to think that the evidence must have been inconclusive. Note that Mueller was not precluded from clearing the President of wrongdoing, and he says that he would have done so if the evidence supported that conclusion.
Then Barr asserts:
The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.
His determination is that the evidence is not sufficient to establish obstruction of justice.
But Mueller had said nothing about leaving it to the Attorney General, who would be subject to the same regulations that tied Mueller’s hands. In Mueller’s view, it fell to Congress, or to federal and state prosecutors after Trump left office, to make the appropriate legal judgments.
What Barr does is take advantage of Mueller’s restraint, turning a policy of not accusing a sitting president into a conclusion of insufficient evidence, a conclusion that Mueller never reached about obstruction. As Senator Angus King put it, “Mueller passed the obstruction question to the Congress, and Barr intercepted the pass….”
Barr’s willingness to go beyond the report to conclude that Trump and his associates had committed no crimes enabled the President to claim complete exoneration, while characterizing the entire investigation as a witch hunt and an attempted coup against his presidency. Then he proceeded to obstruct any possible Congressional investigation by vowing to resist all subpoenas.
Mueller’s response to Barr
Three days after Attorney General Barr released his misleading “summary”, Special Counsel Mueller wrote him a letter characterizing it this way:
The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions….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.
Barr kept Mueller’s letter secret and later testified before Congress that he didn’t know what Mueller thought of his conclusions.
In his handling of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr did a disservice to the Justice Department and the American people. He acted more like Trump’s personal slick attorney, spinning the evidence for the jury in order to create the best impression of innocence he could. I’m glad that Mueller called him on it, and I continue to hope that the full truth will come out.