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William Barr’s ‘snitty’ slip-up gives away his game

Attorney General William P. Barr repeatedly appeared to misrepresent or misstate special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings on May 1. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Attorney General William P. Barr appeared before Congress on Wednesday having been accused of misleading about and pre-spinning the Mueller report for President Trump. He also came on the heels of a newly reported letter in which Robert S. Mueller III rebuked Barr’s handling of the matter.

So it should come as no surprise that he misled about and spun Mueller’s letter, too. The difference this time was that he accidentally gave away his game.

From the start of the hearing, Barr emphasized two talking points about the letter:

  1. That Mueller later told him nothing was inaccurate in Barr’s summary of the Mueller report’s principal conclusions
  2. That Mueller was concerned about news coverage

“I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate, and he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate,” Barr said at one point. He emphasized at another point that he asked Mueller whether the letter was inaccurate. “He indicated that it was not,” Barr said. “He was not saying that and that what he was concerned about” were news reports.

The suggestion is that Mueller wasn’t really upset with Barr at all but was, instead, angry with how the media was handling the matter.

But Mueller’s letter paints a very different picture. It places the onus for misperceptions of his report squarely on Barr.

"The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

That draws a direct line between Barr’s disclosures and the news coverage. Barr’s insistence that the letter was not inaccurate is a red herring. Something can be strictly accurate but also be wholly misleading and cherry-picked, and Mueller clearly viewed Barr’s letter as misleading. This wasn’t about how the news media was getting something wrong; it was about how Barr’s letter led it to get things wrong.

And it took awhile, but Barr eventually seemed to acknowledge that Mueller had, in fact, rebuked him.

Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed him on his portrayal of Mueller’s letter. Barr then recounted his conversation with Mueller on the phone after Mueller sent the letter. He said he told Mueller: “Bob, what’s with the letter? Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?”

Barr then added: “The letter’s a bit snitty, and I think it was written by one of his staff people.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked Attorney General William P. Barr to hand over his notes from a phone call with special counsel Robert S. Mueller. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

But if the letter wasn’t really criticizing Barr, then why would he be taken aback at it and ask why Mueller wrote it? (Side note: Barr knows why Mueller wrote it: to create a record.) And if this was mostly about news coverage, why call the letter “snitty”? Barr seemed to be admitting, finally, that the letter was what it was: a diplomatically worded but pretty direct rebuke of him and his actions.

The parsing of the letter is really a microcosm of the entire Barr imbroglio. The things he was saying were technically true (at least as far as we know), but focusing on them distracted from the real issue. Similarly, it’s not that Barr necessarily lied about anything in the Mueller report but that he cherry-picked what he disclosed to create a narrative unduly favorable to President Trump. Rather than making it clear that Mueller had decided it wasn’t his place to accuse Trump of obstruction of justice, for instance, Barr simply said that he hadn’t done so. That left some with the impression maybe Mueller viewed the evidence as inconclusive.

Barr largely danced around his differences with Mueller earlier in the hearing, but by the end, it was clear that this was about as contentious a situation as it seemed. If only Barr had provided that fuller picture from the beginning.