The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion William Barr torched his reputation. His testimony compounded the damage.

Attorney General William P. Barr listens to questions from senators as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

ATTORNEY GENERAL William P. Barr entered office with more credibility than many Trump appointees. A veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, Mr. Barr avowed loyalty to the Justice Department’s mission and, nearing the end of his career, seemed to have little incentive to serve as another Trump sycophant. Yet Mr. Barr has lit his reputation on fire, and he just added more fuel during his Wednesday testimony before a Senate panel.

Much of the hearing centered on the attorney general’s decision to release a highly misleading representation of the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. In particular, Mr. Barr failed to acknowledge the alarming nature of Mr. Mueller’s analysis on whether President Trump obstructed justice, and he did not explain why the special counsel declined to say whether Mr. Trump was guilty of the charge. This really matters: Given the damning account in Mr. Mueller’s report, what appeared to be keeping the special counsel from accusing the president of criminal acts was not the lack of evidence but the fact that the president cannot be charged under Justice Department rules.

Mr. Barr defended himself Wednesday by insisting that his memo, publicized weeks before he released any additional material, was technically accurate, despite the fact that his spin deeply affected the reception of Mr. Mueller’s full report when the public finally got it. It was not supposed to be a full summary of the special counsel’s report, he insisted — just a brief explanation of the top-line conclusions. Mr. Barr’s long history in Washington belies his argument: He should have known how his pre-spinning of the Mueller report would distort the truth of the special counsel’s damning findings to the president’s benefit. He did it anyway.

American journalist Austin Tice is missing in Syria. It's time to bring him home. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

The Post revealed Tuesday that, shortly after Mr. Barr released his memo, Mr. Mueller sent a letter to the attorney general, objecting that the memo “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the special counsel’s report. Mr. Barr did not mention this letter when he told members of Congress last month that he had no knowledge of any frustration on the part of Mr. Mueller’s staff. In other words, after releasing a spin job on the Mueller report, he misled Congress on whether the special counsel was unhappy about it.

On this and other matters, Mr. Barr has cited personal conversations with Mr. Mueller to defend his actions. According to Mr. Barr, the special counsel was more unhappy with the media coverage of the attorney general’s memo than with the memo itself. Mr. Barr also insisted that Mr. Mueller said Justice Department policy on charging sitting presidents did not determine his decision on accusing Mr. Trump of a crime — even though that was a key consideration in the analysis Mr. Mueller included in his report.

It is long past time the public stopped hearing Mr. Barr’s views on how Mr. Mueller feels, and heard from the special counsel himself. The Justice Department should enable Mr. Mueller to speak publicly and under oath at the earliest opportunity. The special counsel should address not only his substantive findings on the president’s misbehavior but also the attorney general’s manipulation of his work. Not just Mr. Trump should be held accountable for his actions. So should his attorney general.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: William Barr and his horrible hearing

Paul Waldman: William Barr’s congressional testimony was shameful

Karen Tumulty: We must hear directly from Robert Mueller

Tom Toles: William Barr displays the extent of his independence

Jennifer Rubin: Now we know why William Barr is afraid to face House Democrats