Did William Barr accurately summarize the findings in Robert Mueller’s special counsel report? Or did the Attorney General take liberties with the conclusions and ignore prepared public summaries that detailed more significant issues? Until Barr releases the report it might be tough to tell, but both the New York Times and Washington Post hear rumblings of discontent from within Mueller’s team … sorta.
John covered the Times story last night, which reported that investigators have told others of their concern that American views will harden before the full report gets released. It’s the others that are leaking to reporters, at least as it’s characterized in the Times and the Post:
Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.
At stake in the dispute — the first evidence of tension between Mr. Barr and the special counsel’s office — is who shapes the public’s initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history. Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.
The Post followed up by raising the question as to why Barr didn’t release Mueller’s summaries instead of writing his own letter. They also offer the “associates of investigators say” indirect sourcing for these concerns:
But members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.
“It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. …
The report was prepared “so that the front matter from each section could have been released immediately — or very quickly,” the official said. “It was done in a way that minimum redactions, if any, would have been necessary, and the work would have spoken for itself.”
Mueller’s team assumed the information was going to be made available to the public, the official said, “and so they prepared their summaries to be shared in their own words — and not in the attorney general’s summary of their work, as turned out to be the case.”
As it happens, the NYT has an answer for that complaint:
However, the special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.
Mr. Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation, according to two government officials familiar with Mr. Barr’s thinking. They pointed to the decision by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, to harshly criticize Hillary Clinton in 2016 while announcing that he was recommending no charges in the inquiry into her email practices.
So this might all be a nothingburger again. On top of that, now we have dueling leakers, a situation that had been largely avoided during the special counsel probe itself. The Post and the NYT aren’t even talking with direct sources from the probe, but to people claiming to have heard gossip from what appears to be lower-level investigators rather than top-level leaders in the probe.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense for a few reasons. First, Mueller himself is still working with Barr to redact the report. If Mueller didn’t think it needed to be redacted, or that the summaries were ready for release now, there’s nothing to prevent him from saying so directly and publicly. At the very least, Mueller would not cooperate with Barr if he thought the AG was dealing dishonestly with him and the report.
And what precisely would Barr gain from misleading Congress and the public about the report? It will come out in some substantial form soon, which means that Barr would have only bought a few weeks of good press for Trump at the expense of permanent damage to his own standing and reputation. Barr didn’t need this job, and he had no involvement with Trump prior to taking it. Making himself a target for impeachment and obloquy just to gain a few weeks of White House approbation makes no sense at all.
Perhaps there’s some fire from all this secondhand smoke. We won’t know for sure until we see the full report, minus the grand-jury testimony and other classified and sensitive material. However, this sounds more like indirect speculation about what the specifics in the report might be, fed by the ambiguous conclusion on obstruction that has generated some legitimate curiosity, and spun into the worst possible hypothetical outcome. It’s a game of telephone, not a story with substance.
When Mueller or Andrew Weissmann go public and claim that Barr’s spinning the truth, then it’s time to worry. When the media blind-quotes friends of friends with non-specific hot takes, it’s not.