For a week, criticism rained down on Attorney General William P. Barr. Why did his letter advising Congress of the end of the probe contain his own opinion on obstruction of justice? Why did he not lay out basic information such as the size of the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III?
On Friday, Barr seemed to concede that his critics had a point. A new letter was sent to Congress, a sign either that the criticism had personally stung or that Barr worried, once released, the actual report would demonstrate his initial letter was nothing more than political spin to defend his boss.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti observes that “he is likely pushing back because calling it a ‘summary’ suggests that the letter accurately summarizes the entire report, and it does not do so.” Moreover, by hiding even the length of the report in the first letter, Barr helped President Trump perpetuate the assertion that Mueller hadn’t found much of anything. If it took almost 400 pages to lay out his findings, we can bet there’s plenty of interest to the American people.
Other Justice Department veterans agree that Barr is playing defense. “I think he’s clearly a bit stung by the criticism he’s gotten this week, and this letter was his attempt to look like he is committed to transparency without actually making any new commitments,” says former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller.
The Post reports on the second Barr letter:
Barr’s letter aimed to reassure lawmakers and the public that the process for handling the report — which numbers nearly 400 pages, he said — would be aboveboard and fair. It also underscored just how much political distrust may fester as long as the report remains secret, and Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of misrepresenting the contents of a document they haven’t seen.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was not impressed. He released a statement on Friday reiterating that his own deadline of April 2 to produce the full report still stood. “Rather than expend valuable time and resources trying to keep certain portions of this report from Congress, he should work with us to request a court order to release any and all grand jury information to the House Judiciary Committee—as has occurred in every similar investigation in the past,” Nadler said. “There is ample precedent for the Department of Justice sharing all of the information that the Attorney General proposes to redact to the appropriate congressional committees. Again, Congress must see the full report.” He added that “we feel that it is critical for Attorney General Barr to come before Congress immediately to explain the rationale behind his letter, his rapid decision that the evidence developed was insufficient to establish an obstruction of justice offense, and his continued refusal to provide us with the full report.”
Nadler is on solid ground, and Barr’s letter is unlikely to satisfy Congress or, frankly, the public, which, in poll after poll, indicates an overwhelming majority want the entire report.
“Barr has acted from the very beginning as Donald Trump‘s Roy Cohn,” says constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, referring to Trump’s former fixer and attack dog. “He has served the president and not the country.” Tribe continues, “His initial letter was inexcusable in seizing from Congress, for as long as he could get away with it, the role of deciding on his own, in the inexplicable absence of a determination by Robert Mueller, whether Trump was guilty of obstruction and would be indictable but for the DOJ policy against prosecuting a sitting president.”
On its face, the new Barr letter insisting the first Barr letter was not a summary at all will strike many Americans as disingenuous. If it wasn’t a summary, why did he not speak up for an entire week as the president and media declared it as such, and blurred the difference between Mueller’s actual report and Barr’s spin?
“His effort to recast his first letter as something other than a summary of the report he is indefensibly withholding is an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the unprecedented role he has assumed in creating an illusory version of a report nobody has yet read,” says Tribe. “Barr’s evident purpose is to help Trump pretend that Mueller exonerated him of obstructing justice when the opposite is true."
The letter also raises concerns that Barr will never supply the full report, identifying four categories of redactions he intends to make, including those to protect grand jury testimony. “He could have gone to Court anytime in the last week to get permission to release the Grand Jury material to Congress (which is what happened in Watergate and other cases),” says former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal. “But so far he hasn’t done so. Barr was in an evident rush to clear President Trump of obstruction charges, but appears to be in no such rush to get this information to the American people and to Congress.”
Miller sees Barr as still trying to play defense counsel on Trump’s behalf. “The most concerning issue is that he doesn’t seem to be treating Nadler’s request to ask a judge to release grand jury material with any level of seriousness,” Miller says. “It would be one thing if he listened to the request and made an argument as to why he opposed it - but so far he isn’t even doing that. He’s just blowing it off.”
If there is a ray of possible good news, it is that Barr states that he doesn’t intend to show the report to the White House in advance in order to allow the president to assert executive privilege. Miller warns that “the executive privilege section may end up being important. He seems to be indicating he doesn’t expect any executive privilege claims to be made, and it’s not clear whether he means that in good faith, is reserving the right to recommend assertions of the privilege later, or even trying to box the White House in.”
The weeklong, premature victory lap by Trump and his vicious assault on Congress and the press were possible only because Barr made it seem as if Trump had gotten a clean bill of health. Tribe argues that, in his first letter, Barr was “exploiting legalistic formulas — like saying Mueller hadn’t been able to ‘establish’ conspiracy with Russia — to help Trump create the impression that no treacherous collusion took place and that there is no substantial evidence of Trump’s improper coordination with the Kremlin — much of it in plain view.”
When the entire report comes out, both Barr and Trump may appear to have misled the public. Mueller, we know, did not exonerate Trump of obstruction and his report will provide us with hundreds of pages explaining why and, further, enlighten us as to why Trump, for example, hid from voters his attempt to pursue a lucrative deal with Russia during the campaign and why so many in his campaign had so many contacts with Russians, contacts they tried to cover up.
Whatever the temporary political benefits to him and his boss, Barr has permanently stained his reputation and politicized the Justice Department. He adds his name to a long list of people who have tossed away their credibility to protect the most unfit president in history.