- It’s suspicious Barr could write a summary of a report running more than 300 pages after just 48 hours of review.
- We can’t really know anything about what Mueller found until we see everything.
These miss the point, to some degree. It’s certainly possible to summarize a lengthy report in a couple days, given the resources available at the Justice Department: If and when the report comes out, news organizations will undoubtedly be summarizing it within an hour or two.
And whatever else is in the report, the top-line conclusions are significant. The idea that Barr would risk the Mueller report eventually coming out and having it become obvious that he utterly mischaracterized its principal conclusions is pretty difficult to swallow. And if it were Barr’s goal to completely cover this up, why would he include the part where Mueller specified that while he wasn’t accusing Trump of obstruction, he also wasn’t exonerating him either? Barr could have just said Mueller decided not to accuse Trump.
The bigger issues, it seems to me, remain (a) why Barr decided to reach his own verdict on obstruction of justice, (b) whether that conclusion was rational and (c) why he didn’t share more initially.
I shared some thoughts on the first two on Monday. Barr’s decision to weigh in on the obstruction question was curious because of the political problems it posed. If Mueller couldn’t reach this conclusion based upon nearly two years of an extensive investigation, why was Barr reaching it based upon 48 hours of review? There were already questions about Barr’s neutrality on the Mueller probe, given his past commentary on it. But even if that didn’t exist, you still have a very recent Trump appointee effectively stepping in to clear him of criminal activity. And he was doing so even though it didn’t really matter, since the Justice Department doesn’t actually indict sitting presidents and this would be a matter left to Congress.
It’s odd that Barr’s letter doesn’t explicitly lay out why he decided to weigh in. All he said was, “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.” Was there a legal reason for this? Did Mueller ask him to do this? It’s just stated as if this is the only logical action to take.
Then there’s the rationale for the decision. Barr makes the curious argument that the lack of an underlying crime of conspiracy with Russia is a mitigating factor when it comes to whether Trump obstructed justice. It’s true that the lack of underlying crime can be a factor, but there were plenty of other readily apparent motives for Trump to have obstructed. People very close to him were being indicted or pleading guilty to other crimes. He also rather clearly hated the narrative that Russia might have proved the difference in electing him.
Barr’s decision to weigh in on this question was a giant plus for Trump. Without it, the narrative would have focused more intently on Mueller’s lack of exoneration and the idea that this was being left to Congress. With it, Trump can credibly say the Justice Department found neither of these crimes.
And the third big question is why the letter didn’t include more detail about why Mueller reached the conclusions he did. Barr essentially just lays out what the conclusions were without allowing Mueller to expound. In fact, it doesn’t include any complete sentences from Mueller’s report. But when it comes to his own conclusion about obstruction, Barr allows himself to expound, at least briefly.
That doesn’t mean Barr is deliberately trying to protect Trump. In fact, people should temper their expectations about just how vastly the Mueller report might depart from what Barr reported it said. The fact will almost undoubtedly remain that Trump hasn’t been accused of any crimes, and that’s very significant. This will very likely remain in a political gray area.
But there are valid questions from there about whether Barr worked around the margins in a way that accrued to Trump’s benefit. And that probably has less to do with what Barr attributed to Mueller and his 300-page report than what he proactively attributed to himself.