William Barr Is Cornered by Bob Mueller

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- During a congressional hearing on April 9, Representative Charlie Crist, a Florida Democrat, asked Attorney General William Barr if he knew why Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators were reportedly upset about a recent letter released by Barr. The missive summarized the Mueller team’s still unpublished findings from its conspiracy and obstruction probe involving President Donald Trump, his advisers and Russia.

“Reports have emerged recently, general, that members of the special counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24th letter. That it does not adequately or accurately, necessarily, portray the report’s findings,” Crist said. “Do you know what they are referencing with that?

“No, I don't,” Barr responded. “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out.”

A day later, Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, pursued a similar line of questioning and noted that Barr’s summary went well beyond the Mueller report’s findings by unilaterally absolving Trump of obstruction.

“Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?" Van Hollen asked.

"I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr replied.

Just how honest and candid Barr was with Congress is now in play. As it turns out, Mueller himself wasn’t comfortable with Barr’s take on his work and he wrote to the Justice Department on March 27 to complain about it in detail — almost exactly two weeks before Barr began testifying otherwise to Crist and Van Hollen.

Mueller told the Justice Department (and Barr in a subsequent phone call) that the attorney general’s four-page memo outlining the report’s primary conclusions “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation, according to a copy of Mueller’s letter that the Washington Post disclosed on Tuesday evening.

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote. “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.”

During his call with Barr, Mueller also told the attorney general that “he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction investigation was misguided and creating public misunderstandings” about the special counsel’s report, the Post reported. The newspaper also noted that some of Mueller’s investigators felt that “the evidence they had gathered — especially on obstruction — was far more alarming and significant than how Barr had described it.”

Barr will be testifying again on Wednesday morning before Congress, for the first time since the 448-page Mueller report was released publicly on April 18. He’s likely to get a grilling. The report offered a portrait of Trump and his team acting in much more sinister and purposefully illicit ways than Barr suggested in his summary, and in the odd little bit of media spinning and political theater he engaged in during a press conference ahead of the report’s release. The possibility that Trump also trafficked in obstruction leaps from the report’s pages and is a much less clear-cut issue than Barr has made out.

In prepared remarks he issued hours prior to Wednesday’s testimony, Barr defended the decisions he’s made at the Justice Department and presented himself as guardian of the rule of law. And he’s still ready to double-down on his understanding of his institutional power and prerogatives. “It would not have been appropriate for me simply to release,” the Mueller report’s own inconclusive take on whether Trump obstructed justice “without making a prosecutorial judgment,” Barr allows.

Still, what we have in Barr is a subtler and more emotionally disciplined version of Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s most prominent pit-bull attorneys. Barr often seems content to placate the president’s legal adversaries to keep them off balance or to lay down verbal smokescreens that confuse the media. Perhaps he’s also ready to play semantic games — or quite possibly dissemble — to senators if it helps him get his way.

At first blush, it’s strange that Barr didn’t seem to see a rebuke from Mueller coming and prepare for that. On the other hand, Barr has moved in and out of Washington’s power circles for years and one of his fortes involves developing ways for presidents to avoid scrutiny or culpability. Maybe he doesn’t care too much about what Mueller thinks. 

As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman has written, Barr convinced George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s to pardon six officials for crimes associated with the Iran-Contra affair as a way of protecting the then president from possible prosecution. Barr also once reportedly withheld sections of a Justice Department legal opinion from colleagues in order to grease the wheels for an eventual abduction of a former Panamanian dictator. So Barr’s been around, and when he parlayed public criticism of some aspects of Mueller’s investigation into an audition for a job with Trump, the die was cast.

Trump has a long history of co-opting those who spend a lot of time around him, but Barr arrived in the White House ready to rumble and with an expansive view of executive authority. He and his boss were a perfect fit. Now Mueller has called Barr’s bluff and it’s up to Congress to demonstrate to the public what it truly means to support the rule of law. 

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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