This post has been updated.
For the entirety of its probe, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team has been leakproof. When we learned things about its Russia investigation, it was almost always through people who found themselves mixed up in it. Mueller lived up to his by-the-book reputation.
Which makes what we saw Wednesday night all the more notable. The New York Times broke, then The Washington Post matched, the news that investigators on Mueller’s team were grousing about how Attorney General William P. Barr has handled summarizing their report.
Even if the leaks weren’t deliberate — the Times initially reported this secondhand as the Mueller team complaining to associates, not them — the fact that the investigators are complaining enough that this would leak is significant. It suggests a serious level of dissatisfaction and concern, if not a concerted effort to send a message before Barr’s big reveal of the Mueller report this month. These investigators may feel liberated to vent now that the probe is over (and some of them have even left the Justice Department), but you have to think this represents a very serious level of concern about Barr’s conduct, rather than just a few offhand comments.
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.
The New York Times first reported that some special counsel investigators feel that Barr did not adequately portray their findings.
Some members of the office were particularly disappointed that Barr did not release summary information the special counsel team had prepared, according to two people familiar with their reactions.
“There was immediate displeasure from the team when they saw how the attorney general had characterized their work instead,” according to one U.S. official briefed on the matter.
The Mueller team is reportedly saying it wrote summaries for each section, which it believed Barr could release immediately and without a need to redact. Instead, he chose to summarize the report almost completely in his own words and didn’t even include complete sentences from Mueller’s report.
The Justice Department has fought back, saying that even Mueller’s summaries included potentially sensitive information. Spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said every page was marked as possibly including materials obtained via grand jury, which is information the Justice Department legally can’t release. “Given the extraordinary public interest in the matter, the attorney general decided to release the report’s bottom-line findings and his conclusions immediately — without attempting to summarize the report — with the understanding that the report itself would be released after the redaction process,” she said.
Barr’s summary has been at issue ever since it was released, as has his decision to exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice when Mueller’s team pointedly declined to either accuse or exonerate. Since then, the question has been how damning the evidence is and whether Barr’s decision to exonerate Trump on his own was necessary. Some have even alleged Barr was protecting the man who appointed him or doing his bidding. (Barr’s history of criticizing the Mueller probe as a private citizen certainly could lead one to draw conclusions.)
The Times put it like this: “Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.”
That’s an interesting point. There is certainly something to be said for setting the terms of the debate. If people have processed that the report doesn’t accuse Trump of crimes, perhaps they’ll look at even highly questionable behavior and simply conclude, “Well, they didn’t say it was a crime.”
But there is also something to be said for setting expectations low. Generally speaking, before a big reveal, you want to lower expectations so that it looks like good news for you. There is a very credible case to be made that the Trump team setting the bar at “complete and total EXONERATION” could make the ultimate report look especially bad for him.
The message from Mueller’s team, whether deliberate, seems to be: Stay tuned, and be wary of William Barr.