Give Republicans credit for this: Convincing everyone to take Attorney General William P. Barr’s four-page summary of Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the Russia scandal as proof that President Trump is innocent of every allegation, “a cloud has been lifted” from his presidency, and the whole matter has come to an end was one of the most extraordinary PR coups in recent memory.
But that victory may have been short-lived, and now the question is whether the public will truly see what’s in Mueller’s report.
Or to put it another way: Can we all trust Barr to tell us what we should and shouldn’t see in the Mueller report?
There are reasons to be skeptical, to say the least. Imagine, as some have posited, what the reaction would have been from both Republicans and the media if Ken Starr had delivered his report on the Lewinsky scandal to Janet Reno, who kept it from the public but wrote a four-page letter concluding that Bill Clinton was not guilty of any crimes. But it’s even worse than that, because Reno wasn’t given the job of attorney general because she sent Clinton a memorandum offering her opinion that he couldn’t possibly be guilty of obstruction of justice.
That’s what Barr did. His 19-page memo written last June argued that “Mueller’s obstruction theory is fatally misconceived,” and the idea that Barr’s memo was anything other than a successful audition for the position of attorney general is absurd. After all, the entire reason Trump was so eager to fire his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was because Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation and was therefore unable to protect Trump from it. The president didn’t even try to hide that fact.
So it was not exactly a surprise that when Mueller left the decision as to whether Trump is guilty of obstruction up to him, Barr decided the answer was no.
Now Barr says he will release a version of the nearly 400-page report, albeit one that contains redactions in four areas: grand jury information, information that could reveal intelligence “sources and methods,” information related to investigations that are still ongoing, and information related to “peripheral third parties” who were caught up in the investigation but committed no wrongdoing themselves. All of which is perfectly appropriate, but there’s a hitch: The person with ultimate authority to decide what gets redacted and what doesn’t is Barr.
And Democrats are not willing to take his assurances at face value:
The House Judiciary Committee plans to vote Wednesday to authorize subpoenas to obtain the full report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, escalating a feud with the Justice Department over a lengthy document detailing findings about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, on Monday announced plans for the panel’s vote, which would take place a day after a deadline the committee set for Attorney General William P. Barr to share the report.
Barr pledged last week to release a redacted version by mid-April, well after Nadler’s deadline. Nadler’s committee is seeking to obtain the “full and complete report,” which spans nearly 400 pages, as well as underlying evidence.
To be clear, this isn’t about whether the full report without redactions will be made public. It’s about whether select members of Congress will be able to see the unredacted version. If Barr and his aides do their jobs as they’re supposed to, Nadler would presumably say afterward that having seen both versions, he can attest that all the redactions were appropriate and that the public can learn all it needs to know from the redacted version. But Nadler and other Democrats want to see for themselves so they can make that judgment.
Republicans look to already be preparing a fight, arguing that no one should get to question Barr's redactions. Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, criticized Democrats for "demanding unredacted material that Congress does not, in truth, require and that the law does not allow to be shared outside the Justice Department." We don't know yet whether Barr will refuse to comply with a subpoena for the unredacted report, but if he does, that would set up a court battle that could go all the way to the Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a majority.
And don’t be surprised if Trump’s position shifts in the coming days, too. At first he said, “Let it come out. Let people see it — that’s up to the attorney general.” I’m guessing he’ll soon start saying that anyone who questions Barr’s redactions is a sore loser, and then that the full report is a scam and a hoax. A new Post-Schar School poll finds that 83 percent of respondents said the report should be made public, including 70 percent of Republicans. But those Republicans will quickly change their opinion if Trump tells them the full report is a deep-state book of lies that no one should see.
You can see why Trump would feel that way. There’s no doubt that Barr’s four-page summary is the best possible interpretation of the report for the president, one that contains few details and leaves an enormous number of questions unanswered. Why not just leave it at that? Why do we have to learn more about all the Trump associates who had contacts with Russians, and all the lies they told both in public and to investigators about those contacts, and how eager the president, his family members and his aides were to get the Russian government’s help to win the election? It’s not as though the public has some interest in learning that story in full. Right?
The question isn’t whether Mueller’s report contains some shocking new information that will transform the way everyone thinks about this scandal. It almost certainly won’t. But there are a great number of questions we need answered, both for our own understanding of the scandal and for the historical record. And the idea that we can trust Barr to answer those questions, when he was chosen for his job precisely because Trump trusted him to act as his protector, is a little too much to take on faith.