Trump’s game, echoed by his propagandists, has been to use William P. Barr’s cursory letter to downplay in advance the findings from Robert S. Mueller III’s report — which is reportedly more than 300 pages — to the point where the political media treats this as a closed matter. Perversely, he has simultaneously weaponized the letter against the very act — full release of the report — that would let Americans judge for themselves whether that characterization is actually true.
In this, the Barr letter gave Trump what he’d hoped for. It set a baseline definition of exoneration (no criminal charges) against which any demands for a fuller accounting of the undermining of the integrity of the election that lifted him to the presidency, and the extensive corruption and misconduct by Trump himself that flowed from it, could be cast as a refusal to “move on.”
A good deal of media analysis claiming a “cloud has lifted" from Trump uncritically internalized this framing.
The new revelations in the New York Times and The Post about anger among Mueller investigators at Barr will make this spin — and that media framing — a lot harder to sustain.
The Times reports that some of Mueller’s investigators “have told associates” that Barr “failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry,” and that they were “more troubling” for Trump than Barr’s letter indicated. Those Mueller investigators believe Barr “should have included more of their material.” It’s not clear from the Times report how exactly these investigators thought Barr’s letter oversimplified their findings.
But The Post’s account adds substantially to this portion of the story. Barr’s letter stated that Mueller’s report details evidence on “both sides” of the question of whether Trump committed criminal obstruction of justice, and said Barr stepped in to conclude that Mueller’s findings were “not sufficient” to establish that criminality. The Post report, however, says this:
Members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.
“It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.
Meanwhile, The Post also reports that Mueller’s team had prepared summaries of their conclusions. Critically, one official says this was done so these summaries could be shared with the public, as opposed to the public being informed by "the attorney general’s summary of their work, as turned out to be the case.”
All of that is not just a direct indictment of Barr’s process decision to summarize the findings as he did. In effect, it also says that his summary has, through omission, misled the public about the gravity of those findings.
What the new revelations say about Trump obstruction
Now, in fairness, we don’t yet know how widespread these objections were among Mueller’s team. And the accounts detail that Barr worried about releasing sensitive information in the Mueller summaries, and fretted about revealing derogatory information while closing an investigation without charges.
But when it comes to Trump’s obstruction of justice, we already know Mueller found damning evidence, some of which weighed in the direction that it constituted a crime. Barr’s letter explicitly says this — Mueller laid out "evidence on both sides of the question” — but without disclosing what any of that evidence was.
This rendered it impossible to evaluate Barr’s decision that the obstruction wasn’t criminal. And this is no small matter: As Randall Eliason explains, we simply don’t know whether that decision was grounded in Barr’s previously declared view that presidential interference in investigations cannot be obstruction of justice by definition, or in a comprehensive evaluation of whether the evidence pointed to corrupt intent on Trump’s part.
If the new reporting is correct, we’ve now learned that the Mueller team wanted the initial public release to disclose more of that actual evidence on obstruction than Barr did — and that Barr’s characterization of it potentially distorted the total picture created by that evidence.
Which points to another big question raised by the new revelations: whether the Mueller team wanted Barr to declare a finding on obstruction at all, or whether Mueller merely wanted the question placed before Congress, with no Justice Department conclusion preshaping perceptions.
Revelations underscore urgency of getting full report
Congress’ role in this matter is different from that of the Justice Department. As House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler notes, the special counsel’s role has been to “investigate allegedly criminal conduct” stemming from Russia-Trump campaign links, while Congress’ role “is to hold the president accountable any time he undermines the rule of law.”
Democrats are demanding the full report — not a redacted one, as Barr has promised — to carry out that latter mission, which entails examining the full factual record, regardless of whether criminality occurred. It bears repeating that even if Mueller didn’t find enough evidence to bring criminal charges for conspiracy with Russia, the report might still contain extensive evidence — beyond what we already know — of damning misconduct and wrongdoing on that front.
Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation, then, constituted an effort to prevent a full accounting of all of that misconduct and wrongdoing — as well as an accounting of the full extent of Russian sabotage of the 2016 election, regardless of whether there was conspiracy, which might call into question the integrity of his election victory. The full report would give us that accounting — and a full accounting of Trump’s obstructive efforts to prevent all of that from ever coming to light.
That basic public accountability — which Congress now has an institution obligation to pursue — is what Trump is trying to prevent from happening, now that he’s backpedaling furiously on his previous claim that he wants the full report released.
The Barr summary, whether intended or not, has become Trump’s No. 1 weapon in service of that goal. What remains to be seen is how unfaithful that summary was to the full factual picture in creating the impression that this matter is a largely a settled one. The new revelations should make it much harder to keep that full factual picture concealed — and much harder to sustain that impression, as well.