Mueller Team Finally Cracks Over William Barr’s Letters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Eleven days have passed since Attorney General William Barr fired off a surprisingly brief letter outlining what he asserted were the key takeaways from a highly anticipated report two years in the making. During that time, we’ve learned much more about Barr than we have about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe.

We’ve learned, for example, that Barr rushed to exculpate President Donald Trump and his advisers in that four-page missive, which laid out what the attorney general claimed were the Mueller report’s two key criminal inquiries: Conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Barr has told us that although Mueller felt his report didn’t completely exonerate the president, he also didn’t think Trump and his team conspired with Russia to try sabotaging the 2016 presidential campaign. On the other hand, Mueller didn’t decide whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr took that as a signal that he should rule on that one, and he did: No obstruction.

We’ve learned subsequently that Barr may have come across as a little too absolute in that first letter, hence his decision to send a second missive last Friday declaring that – phew! – his first letter was never meant to be a summary or even an “exhaustive recounting” of everything in Mueller’s report. It was just a “bottom line” conclusion.

It’s worth noting at this point that Barr came to the debate over the criminal obstruction probe with baggage. In 2018 he sent an unsolicited, 19-page memo to Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department arguing that Mueller’s obstruction inquiry was “fatally flawed.” Barr also has an expansive view of executive privilege, outlined in a 1989 memo that he wrote when he was the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general.

So it’s not much of a shock that a president who’s spent decades skirting the law’s limits decided to hire the guy who has an imperial view of presidential latitude, thinks Congress should mind its own business, and who auditioned for the attorney general’s post by saying Trump was legally insulated from one of the crimes Mueller was investigating.

After becoming attorney general, Barr might have recused himself from taking such an active role managing the Mueller report and shaping public perceptions of it, given his history. But that would no doubt have defeated some of the reasons why Trump gave him the job in the first place. 

Now, thanks to reporting from the New York Times, matched on Wednesday night by the Washington Post, we’ve learned that Barr’s recent proclamations have so disconcerted members of Mueller’s once tight-lipped and leak-proof team that they’ve become chatty.

According to the Times, Mueller’s crew believes that Barr “failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated.” As it turns out, the Times reported, Mueller’s investigators had written multiple summaries of the report before the special counsel turned it over to Barr and they’re perplexed that he didn’t include much more of that information in his now famous four-page letter. (A person familiar with the investigation told the Times that Barr didn’t include more because Mueller’s team hadn’t asked – and because he was worried about disclosing sensitive information from the summaries.) The Times’s reporting doesn’t disclose what type of investigative findings, exactly, were omitted from Barr’s report.

The Post went further. It reported that “members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant” and “much more acute than Barr suggested.”

The Post quotes one anonymous U.S. official as saying that there “was immediate displeasure from the team when they saw how the attorney general had characterized their work.” This section from the Post’s reporting about the Mueller team’s summaries is telling:

Summaries were prepared for different sections of the report, with a view that they could be made public, the official said. 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.”

In an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham on Wednesday evening, one of Trump’s attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, offered his take on why Mueller’s people were suddenly talking. “They are a bunch of sneaky, unethical leakers. And they are rabid Democrats who hate the president of the United States,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much false information they leaked during the course of the investigation… How could you have any confidence in this?”

That has been Giuliani’s line for some time now, and he says it knowing full well that Mueller and his team didn’t leak during the probe. It accords with the “deep state” mumbo jumbo proffered by the same crew that has claimed, incorrectly and repeatedly, that the infamous Steele dossier – a lurid report by a former British intelligence officer – is what prompted the Russia investigation. And it’s meant to cast doubt on a very obvious explanation for why Mueller’s people might be talking now: They think Barr has misrepresented, possibly intentionally, their work and conclusions.

Barr has, of course, been jousting with Congress over when he’ll release the Mueller report and how much of it he’ll disclose. Congress doubts his intentions, and given recent events that isn’t an unreasonable view. After all, Barr knows what he signed up for when he took the job and has been acting accordingly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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