Has William Barr misled people about a special counsel report that will get published in a few days anyway? Like many, Rod Rosenstein finds that idea “completely bizarre,” he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published last night. And even though Barr’s comment about “spying” might indirectly involve Rosenstein, the outgoing deputy Attorney General remains supportive of Barr:
“He’s being as forthcoming as he can, and so this notion that he’s trying to mislead people, I think is just completely bizarre,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
Mr. Barr is under intense pressure to quickly produce the edited report amid concerns from Democrats that the attorney general, a longtime advocate of executive-branch authority, is seeking to protect the president from politically damaging information the report may contain. Their worries were heightened after reports that some investigators on Mr. Mueller’s team had told associates in recent days that they believe the report is more critical of Mr. Trump on the obstruction issue than Mr. Barr indicated in his summary. Mr. Rosenstein wouldn’t say why Mr. Mueller rendered no conclusion on that critical question.
“It would be one thing if you put out a letter and said, ‘I’m not going to give you the report,’ ” Mr. Rosenstein said. “What he said is, ‘Look, it’s going to take a while to process the report. In the meantime, people really want to know what’s in it. I’m going to give you the top-line conclusions.’ That’s all he was trying to do.”
Both AP and I have written extensively about the weird claim that Barr is twisting Mueller’s report for political purposes. For one thing, the report is going to get released in redacted form, but those redactions won’t include the conclusions Mueller reached. Barr wouldn’t misrepresent those just to gain a couple of weeks of rhetorical advantage only to lose all credibility after the release. As Rosenstein says, that’s a “completely bizarre” idea.
Besides, Rosenstein and Mueller are both working on the redactions with Barr. If Barr was manipulating that process, Mueller would certainly walk away from it, and Rosenstein almost certainly would too, since he’s already departing the Department of Justice. In fact, he was supposed to be out last month, but Rosenstein is apparently sticking around to help Barr get the report out. That’s a pretty good indication that Rosenstein’s happy with the process.
Barr also set off Democrats earlier this week by stating that “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign, via the FISA warrant on Carter Page. Barr added that there may have been a valid predicate for that spying, but it needed to be further investigated. The controversy over the term itself is nonsensical; counterintelligence under FISA is an espionage function, not a law-enforcement function, which makes it spying even if it’s legal. Congress passed FISA not to legalize domestic spying on US persons but to limit the spying that the FBI had been conducting all along.
Rosenstein signed off on the Page warrant application, the Wall Street Journal reminds us, and they asked Rosenstein if he’s worried about a Barr-ordered probe of it. Not particularly, Rosenstein answered, but he stands by his approval:
It isn’t known whether Mr. Barr’s review will examine any of Mr. Rosenstein’s actions, namely that he approved an application to ask a court to grant continued surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who had long been on the radar of U.S. counterintelligence for his communications with Russians.
Mr. Rosenstein wouldn’t comment on Mr. Barr’s inquiry of that counterintelligence probe, but he said generally that he is open to objective scrutiny and stands by his approval of the renewal.
Rosenstein’s support impressed Aaron Blake, but the Washington Post analyst wondered whether he might end up getting burned by it:
Rosenstein’s comments are notable because he’s one of the few figures involved in the Russia investigation with some bipartisan credibility. He is a Trump appointee as the Justice Department’s No. 2, but he also has drawn Trump’s ire as the overseer of the Mueller probe, which Trump has long argued is a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Rosenstein, in his few public comments, has taken on critics of the investigation and generally given Mueller broad berth.
To some degree, Rosenstein was already invested in Barr’s stewardship of the closing stages of the Mueller probe. He praised Barr’s nomination, despite Barr’s known history of criticizing the Mueller probe, and in that letter he joined with Barr in their controversial decision to exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice — even as Mueller declined to either charge or exonerate him. …
Rosenstein hasn’t always had the best luck with such decisions. At the other bookend of the special counsel’s investigation was Rosenstein’s decision to author a letter criticizing then-FBI Director James B. Comey that Trump used to justify his firing. Shortly after this, Trump admitted he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s thoughts and that he did so with the Russia probe on his mind. Reporting indicates Rosenstein felt used by Trump and that the episode had damaged his reputation.
That report came from the New York Times in June of last year. However, Rosenstein told the WSJ that he stood by the Comey memo and still believes in its conclusions. If Rosenstein was that unhappy about it last June, one would have expected him to leave then — or failing that, to have left as soon as Mueller’s finished. Instead, Rosenstein seems reluctant to leave and tells the WSJ that he doesn’t have any plans for his post-DoJ career yet. The fact that he’s in no hurry to depart argues for corroboration of his statements on Barr and the Comey memo, even if it runs afoul of the narratives of the moment.