Attorney General William P. Barr told reporters on Monday that he simply didn’t understand why former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III needed to testify before Congress. Mueller’s testimony, scheduled for next week, is not a “useful exercise,” Barr said, with Democrats simply seeking to create “some kind of public spectacle."
"I don’t see the point in subpoenaing him and bringing him up to testify if he’s going to stick with his report,” Barr said, “which I think he will."
This is an entirely unsurprising response from Barr, given how fervently he's tried to offer a summary of Mueller's findings that is particularly generous to President Trump. It's a summary that, in the absence of other voices or Americans reading Mueller's actual report, has carried the day.
Mueller “sticking with the report” in speaking about it publicly is precisely the outcome about which Trump is least enthusiastic. The special counsel and his team spent nearly two years investigating how Russian actors interfered in the 2016 election and where those efforts overlapped with Trump's presidential campaign. It spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars considering whether federal laws were broken, including by members of Trump's family. It looked at numerous occasions in which Trump himself appeared to have taken actions meant to impede or derail the Mueller investigation itself.
The final result, as you are no doubt aware, was that report, more than 400 pages in length, documenting not only Russia's interference efforts but its outreach to Trump's campaign. It details how Trump attempted to throw roadblocks in front of the probe in ways that legal experts outside the Department of Justice consider criminally obstructive. It explains not how Trump and his team were exonerated but, instead, how Mueller's team didn't or couldn't gather enough evidence to prove coordination between Trump's team and Russia's. The findings are nuanced, offering details but often not conclusions, marking paths that still haven't been fully explored.
The president's presentation of the Mueller investigation is much simpler: It proves he did nothing wrong. That argument hinges on a summary letter written by Barr shortly after Mueller's team completed its work and well before the full report became public. Barr had the first word on what Mueller found and used it to explain that Mueller “did not establish” a Trump-Russia conspiracy and, further, that he himself (in consultation with then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein) had determined that Trump didn't commit obstruction of justice.
That explanation of Mueller’s findings quickly set into concrete among Trump supporters — aided by Trump. Trump has tweeted some form of “no collusion” nearly 50 times since the report was released, though the report itself specifically states that it’s not evaluating collusion even while it details a number of points of contact between Russian actors and the Trump campaign.
When Mueller held a news conference in late May to mark the formal conclusion of his investigation, it was the first time that a government official had presented his team’s findings in a way that didn’t comport with Trump’s erroneous and Barr’s generous assessments. While Trump’s allies hurried to contextualize Mueller and his comments in a way that was friendly to Trump, the special counsel clearly changed some minds.
One woman in Michigan who spoke to NBC News became the poster child for that sensibility.
“I was surprised to hear there was anything negative in the Mueller report at all about President Trump. I hadn’t heard that before,” she said after attending a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.). “I’ve mainly listened to conservative news, and I hadn’t heard anything negative about that report and President Trump has been exonerated.”
She’s certainly not alone in not having read the Mueller report. In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Amash estimated that less than 15 percent of Congress had read it. When The Post surveyed legislators on key Senate and House committees after the report was released, most said they had — but a quarter declined to respond to our questions.
Politico reported on Tuesday morning that Amash is right: Most lawmakers haven’t read the report.
"What's the point?” asked Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
From one standpoint, that’s a fair question for a Republican at the moment: There’s not much political value in bucking Trump on the subject at the moment. Amash did, and he’s no longer a Republican. From another standpoint, though, it’s of course important for legislators — and Americans more broadly — to understand what the taxpayer-funded probe found.
Mueller's testimony delineating what the report contains and answering questions from legislators about its contents will at the very least inform more of those members of Congress about what he found. Americans tuning in will similarly learn what Mueller and his team knows and better understand (one hopes) the boundaries of what they determined and where their efforts were stymied.
The logic here isn’t complicated. More people have seen the movie “All the President’s Men” than have read The Post’s coverage of Watergate. Televised hearings and the drama they often engender have a power and reach that’s missing from static news conferences or lengthy reports. One point of asking Mueller to testify is precisely to amplify his work so that more people are familiar with it.
Barr doesn't see value in that. He's already offered a summary of what Mueller found, and it's a summary with which Barr's boss, Trump, is more than content. Mueller's testimony isn't useful to Barr because it will almost necessarily demonstrate where Barr's offerings were lacking and, by extension, where questions still linger around Trump.
It likely will be a public spectacle. And the spectacle, in part, will be to show how Barr's assessment of Mueller's work differs from Mueller's assessment of it.
Not an outcome Barr would embrace.