Something strange is happening at the Justice Department.
The confusing goings-on began March 24, when Attorney General William P. Barr sent a letter to Congress providing an outline of the principal conclusions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The attorney general’s letter has drawn widespread criticism for failing to fully illuminate Mueller’s work. In particular, Congress and the country was left scratching its head about why Mueller declined to make the “traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to whether President Trump’s conduct constituted obstruction of justice.
Just as puzzling and no less important, it was unclear why, and on what legal basis, Barr took it upon himself to step into the breach and announce a bottom-line conclusion for the department that Trump’s conduct could not be charged as obstruction, even if the Constitution permitted the president to be indicted.
These questions, and the controversies they have created, have now begun to bubble up from within the department, where over the past few days, competing camps of unnamed Mueller and Barr loyalists have apparently begun to air their positions in the media.
Thus, an investigation that played out for 22 months in perfectly disciplined hermetic silence has now devolved into the kind of leak-and-counterleak, inter- and intra-branch dispute that is so familiar in Washington.
We are now given to understand, as The Post reported this week, that Barr and his advisers were chagrined that Mueller failed to reach an ultimate conclusion about the president’s conduct. Barr’s camp similarly maintains that the attorney general was required by the regulations to reach a judgment on the president’s conduct.
For its part, members of the Mueller contingent is suggesting sotto voce that it was the attorney general who arrogated to himself the decision to exonerate Trump, according to NBC News. More damning, they are telling reporters that Barr’s letter provided an inaccurate representation of the special counsel’s findings, and were inaccurately slanted in Trump’s favor.
All of this is a miserable mess that serves further to obscure Congress’s and the public’s understanding of questions of enormous consequence.
Moreover, it previously was reported that Barr and his team knew for at least three weeks that Mueller did not intend to reach a bottom-line conclusion. If Barr’s judgment was, in fact, that Mueller’s decision was a dereliction of his duty, why did he not direct the special counsel to follow the regulations, as Barr saw them, and return a judgment?
There is one immediate measure that could shed light on these questions, and go a long way toward clearing up the confusion that has prevailed ever since Barr’s initial letter.
In the (so far) quiet war of words between the Barr and Mueller camps, we have learned that the special counsel’s report was prepared with summaries of each section that were designed purposely for quick delivery to Congress. These summaries have been scrubbed of all or nearly all controversial material and, therefore, consist of Mueller’s analyses and conclusions without disclosing the supporting, potentially confidential, evidentiary material.
The summaries should be released to the Congress and the public. While some at the Justice Department assert that the materials are marked as containing grand jury material, we know from Mueller’s team that they were prepared for the purpose of quick release. It, therefore, stands to reason that any problematic material they contain could be removed in short order. They are core explanations of Mueller’s work, which the public has been hungry to learn about — and which Mueller intended the public to have.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, should set to the side for one day the maneuverings over grand jury material and other redactions. The Justice Department should similarly reserve its prerogative to fight over these materials in court. For today, all parties should agree immediately to produce the summaries of Mueller’s work that would greatly illuminate the currently obscured special counsel’s report.