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Opinion Congress is right to subpoena the Mueller report. It shouldn’t have had to.

Attorney General William P. Barr is planning key redactions to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The House Judiciary Committee should not have had to vote Wednesday to subpoena special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. It should already have been sent to Congress. The fact that the body’s Democrats had to take this forcing action underscores why Attorney General William P. Barr’s handling of the document so far is irresponsible — and, yes, suspicious.

Let’s look at the timeline. Mueller submitted his report March 22. Two days later, on March 24, Barr issued his four-page letter that included not one complete sentence from the report. Barr quoted the report as saying: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Note that the quote leaves out the beginning of the original sentence.

And note also that Barr’s own words said Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia.” The phase “did not establish” is not the same as “did not find,” but we have no way of knowing, absent the report itself, how significant that difference is. What we do know is that Barr seems to have put the best possible spin for Trump on what Mueller himself wrote.

On obstruction, Barr quoted the Mueller document saying that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Then, Barr made an astonishing assertion: “The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” Barr, who had already criticized what he took to be Mueller’s theory on obstruction before he became attorney general, went on (surprise, surprise) to absolve the president, writing “that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

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But wait a minute: Did Mueller’s decision not to make a call mean that it was Barr’s decision to make? There is nothing that automatically gives Barr that power. Perhaps Mueller intended to leave the decision on obstruction to Congress, not to Barr. Maybe Mueller was silent on this issue in his report. Maybe he wasn’t. We can’t know, because we haven’t seen the report.

And then came a strange letter from Barr on March 29 in which he complained that many were “mischaracterizing” his March 24 letter.

“My March 24 letter was not, and did not purport to be, an exhaustive recounting of the Special Counsel’s investigation or report. … I do not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report or to release it in serial or piecemeal fashion.”

So a summary was not a summary, and his first letter was, well, incomplete, or at least not “exhaustive” or … well, what was it? A news release? President Trump certainly had no problem crying from the heavens that Barr’s letter was a good-enough summary for him and that it cleared him of everything.

Which means that looking at everything Barr is doing with a suspicious eye is, at this point, the only safe thing to do. Especially when Trump, who had previously said he had no problem releasing the report, complained on Tuesday that it was a “disgrace” that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was now demanding the very sort of disclosure the president had once endorsed. Trump, it would seem, was for releasing the full report before he was against it.

When the committee voted for the subpoena on Wednesday, Nadler said: “The Constitution charges Congress with holding the president accountable for alleged official misconduct. That job requires us to evaluate the evidence for ourselves — not the attorney general’s summary, not a substantially redacted synopsis, but the full report and the underlying evidence.” In light of everything that has happened since Mueller turned in his report 12 days ago, how could Congress settle for anything less?

Read more:

Paul Waldman: We can’t trust William Barr to decide how much of Mueller’s findings we see

Harry Litman: A ‘road map’ for the coming fight over the Mueller report

Sally Yates: William Barr should release the full Mueller report as soon as possible

Jennifer Rubin: When is a summary not a summary?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Six takeaways from Barr’s letter about Mueller’s probe