Attorney General Bill Barr is doing the job that President Donald Trump appointed him to do, even if it’s not the job that’s in the public’s best interest. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 488-page report filled in many of the blanks surrounding Moscow’s interference in the 2016 campaign, the Trump campaign’s role in it, and how the president tried to obstruct inquiries and investigations to uncover the truth. But rather than let those findings speak for themselves, Barr decided to speak over them.
Time and again, the attorney general portrayed Mueller’s findings in the best possible light for Trump. He gave a whitewashed summary of the report to Congress in March, which framed public opinion on its conclusions for a month before its release. The morning of the report’s release in April, Barr gave an obsequious press conference where he once against cast it as vindication for the president. Along the way, he misled Congress about the extent of Mueller’s private dissent from his approach.
Barr spent most of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday defending his actions to livid Democratic lawmakers. He even took a glancing jab at Mueller for a letter he wrote to the attorney general raising concerns about his approach to the report. “The letter’s a bit snitty and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people,” he told one senator. When Connecticut Senator Dick Blumenthal asked whether senators could see his notes from a phone conversation with Mueller, Barr refused without hesitation. “Why should you have them?” he replied dismissively.
Getting Mueller’s testimony was already important, but now it’s imperative. The whole point of his investigation was to determine what happened during the 2016 election and whether any crimes were committed. The special counsel’s report left open some gray areas, especially on the extent of Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation and whether he broke the law. Mueller’s letter makes clear that he intended for the public to understand what he found differently that Barr did. Until the special counsel gives Congress his side of the story, the Russia investigation can’t be put to rest.
The attorney general’s version of events alone simply can’t be trusted. When he appeared before Congress last month, Barr gave misleading answers to questions about Mueller’s thoughts on how the investigation wrapped up. “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen asked him at one point. “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr replied. He gave a similarly evasive answer when Florida Representative Charlie Crist asked if he knew what members of Mueller’s team reportedly meant when they complained about his summary letter. “No, I don’t,” Barr replied. “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out.”
His answers suggested without saying that there was no dissent from Mueller himself, even if some staffers were complaining to reporters. Then, on Tuesday night, multiple news outlets reported that Mueller sent a letter to Barr in late March that expressed concern about the attorney general’s March 24 letter to Congress. Barr’s four-page letter told lawmakers and the public that Mueller “did not find” that any Trump campaign officials or associates had “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government. It also said Mueller had not reached a conclusion on obstruction because of “difficult issues” with the federal statute. The president and his allies were euphoric at what they took as total vindication.
Mueller apparently disagreed with that assessment. Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote in a March 27 letter. “We communicated this concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. 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.” Mueller also asked Barr to release the summaries his office had prepared, which the attorney general refused to do.
When the Mueller report became public a month later, it quickly became clear that Barr had watered down its conclusions and presented them in the best possible light for the president. Mueller, in fact, had documented multiple instances where Trump campaign officials welcomed foreign meddling, though it fell short of the legal threshold for criminal charges. And while the special counsel did not bring obstruction charges, he laid out a damning case for them and suggested that the Justice Department could act on them after Trump leaves office.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Barr committed perjury, as some lawmakers suggested after Mueller’s letter became public. His responses instead sound like the kind of lawyerly evasions designed to avoid precisely that problem. Either way, his actions undermine public confidence in how the Justice Department handled the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. They run counter to the department’s post-Watergate tradition of independence from the White House. And they create genuine factual disputes with Mueller that only the special counsel can resolve.
Barr said he had no problem with Mueller testifying before Congress (not that Barr could stop him, now that Mueller is a private citizen again). But Republicans expressed disinterest in hearing the special counsel’s side of the story. “I’m not going to do any more,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, told reporters after the hearing. “Enough already. It’s over. If there’s any dispute about a conversation, then he’ll come, but I’m not going to retry the case.” Had the Democrats not captured the House last fall, this likely would’ve been where the story ended.
If Mueller intended for the Justice Department to file obstruction charges against Trump after the president leaves office, then he should say that to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. If he meant for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings with the evidence he’s already gathered, he should say that. And if he is ultimately satisfied with how the investigation wrapped up, he should say that. Any answer would be fine so long as it’s Mueller, and not a dissembling and deceptive attorney general, who provides it.