The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

William Barr just did Trump another huge favor

Attorney General William P. Barr’s assessment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report used strikingly similar language to President Trump’s remarks. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Attorney General William P. Barr announced he was going to hold a news conference before the release of the Mueller report Thursday, there was instant pushback. How can the media ask questions about a report it hasn’t seen? Would this just be a whole bunch of pre-spin from a man already accused of being too friendly to the president who appointed him?

Barr’s performance did nothing to argue against those allegations.

In a lengthy opening statement, Barr found just about every way possible to say that there was no coordination, cooperation or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also said Trump was right about “no collusion,” expanding the Mueller report’s clearing of Trump to a more nebulous term with little legal significance.

But perhaps more importantly, on obstruction of justice, he seemed to go to bat for Trump personally, offering a sympathetic take on the president’s state of mind and cooperation. Here’s the key section, from his prepared remarks:

In assessing the President’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion. And as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks. Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation. Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.

Let’s break this down.

The first objectionable aspect is Barr’s decision to sympathize with Trump. It was an “unprecedented situation,” according to Barr, and Trump was facing “relentless speculation.” That’s a pretty loaded term. He was “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief” that the probe was undermining him. How does he know it was sincere?

Barr was asked about this in the Q&A portion, and he emphasized, “The statements about his sincere beliefs are recognized in the report that there was ‘substantial evidence’ for that.” We will have to see what the report says.

Read Attorney General Barr’s remarks on the Mueller report

But even then, why offer this kind of preemptive defense of Trump’s motives? And why focus on all the ways in which Trump was absolved of culpability? Why take a shot at the media’s “relentless speculation?” As more than a few people have noted, it’s the kind of statement you’d expect from a Trump defense attorney rather than the attorney general.

Barr could have attributed all of these things to the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but he didn’t. We’ll see whether Mueller drew the same conclusions, but this was a very conspicuous inclusion in Barr’s prepared remarks. And the way it was framed was pretty much exactly what people were concerned about on Wednesday night when the Barr news conference was announced.

The second problematic part is when Barr says that “the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.” There is evidence of extensive cooperation by the White House in fulfilling documents requests, providing staff for interviews, etc. But we also know that Mueller wanted to interview Trump and that the White House fought it for months. Eventually, the White House issued written responses.

Attorney General William P. Barr discussed releasing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's redacted report on April 18, before the actual report release. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“Extensive cooperation” might have been justifiable; “full cooperation” was not. Not with Trump declining to give an interview. And given that so much of this rests on Trump’s frame of mind, his decision not to explain himself directly to Mueller seems a pretty significant bit of uncooperativeness.

We should all see the full report and then judge Barr’s alleged pre-spinning. But the danger here was always going to be that this would look like a political performance from an attorney general whose neutrality in this whole matter has been in question throughout. Barr wrote an unsolicited memo attacking the foundation of Mueller’s obstruction probe. He said in 2017 that the central event in the obstruction probe — the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey — was A-okay. And both his letter summarizing the Mueller report’s principal conclusions and his recent congressional testimony seemed to err on the side of benefiting Trump.

Barr made no effort Thursday to be mindful of that history and combat his perception problem. And even if he was accurately portraying the report, he seemed to pull out many of the most pro-Trump aspects of it, without dwelling on what might be problematic.

That’s what critics had feared. Thankfully, it won’t be the final word.