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William Barr is still misleading about the Mueller report

Attorney General William P. Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Trump administration attorney general William P. Barr has undertaken something of a reclamation project of late, repeatedly criticizing the former president over various issues, including the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But when it comes to perhaps Barr’s highest-profile controversy — his misleading summary of the Mueller report — old habits apparently die hard.

Here’s the now-familiar backstory: After Barr on March 24, 2019, released a summary of the Mueller report on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia’s interference in that election, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III sent him a letter complaining that the summary failed to “fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his report and its conclusions. When the report itself came out the next month, it became clear that Barr’s summary had indeed been misleading in some significant ways. And eventually a federal judge — a Republican-appointed one, no less — issued a scathing review of the matter that called Barr’s “candor” and “credibility” into question.

Barr has given media interviews since the end of the Trump administration. But unlike his appearances on Fox News, Barr’s discussion with Bill Maher on HBO this weekend paired him with a potentially more critical host.

In what was otherwise a relatively chummy interview, Maher did briefly press Barr on the subject of the summary, saying the way he “mischaracterized” the Mueller report was “shady.”

Barr defended his handling of the matter. But in doing so, he rolled out some of the most misleading aspects of his summary all over again.

“I felt that I had to say something to give the bottom line of what [Mueller] had decided,” Barr said. “Number one, I said that he had found there was no collusion.”

This isn’t strictly accurate now, just as it wasn’t strictly accurate back when Barr first said it. In fact, as we came to find out, Mueller said explicitly in his report that he wasn’t examining the nonlegal concept of collusion.

“Collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law,” the Mueller report reads. “For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.”

Barr’s use of the “no collusion” phrasing was suspect not just because the report didn’t directly address it, but because it matched Trump’s own mantra and defined the amorphous term in a way Trump surely approved of. And it’s arguably even more jarring today, given that a later bipartisan Senate report, released in August 2020, detailed perhaps the most significant example to date of a high-ranking Trump campaign aide working with someone it described as a “Russian intelligence officer.”

As the federal judge noted in his opinion, issued a few months before that revelation:

Attorney General Barr’s summary failed to indicate that Special Counsel Mueller “identified multiple contacts — ‘links,’ in the words of the Appointment Order — between Trump [c]ampaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government” … and that Special Counsel Mueller only concluded that the investigation did not establish that “these contacts involved or resulted in coordination or a conspiracy with the Trump [c]ampaign and Russia” … because coordination — the term that appears in the Appointment Order — “does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law.”

In his interview this weekend, Barr proceeded to defend his summary of the second portion of Mueller’s report, having to do with whether Trump obstructed justice during the investigation.

Mueller “states, colon, that he does not find there was obstruction, but he is not exonerating the president. Okay? I used his exact language,” Barr said. “Then I said he punted but I’m making the decision, and I say, based on the report, there was no obstruction. And the discussion about how there was no obstruction was not me characterizing Mueller, but me stating my conclusion. So those are the facts.”

Again, the issue here isn’t so much inaccuracy as spin.

Perhaps the main problem with Barr’s initial summary and his news conference on the day the Mueller report was released is that he elided the reason Mueller didn’t accuse Trump of obstruction. Barr’s implication was clearly that Mueller had examined the evidence and could not come to a conclusion. But Mueller’s report was explicit that he believed it wasn’t his place to accuse Trump of a crime, regardless of the evidence — because of long-standing Justice Department policy against charging a sitting president. Barr did not mention this. And in fact, when asked at the news conference whether Mueller punted because of that policy, Barr talked around the question. (This was the other main part of Barr’s summary the judge deemed to be misleading.)

On Maher’s show, Barr again oversimplified. He pitched the report as Mueller saying he didn’t “find there was obstruction.” In fact, Mueller laid out five instances in which he suggested Trump’s conduct appeared to satisfy the criteria for an obstruction charge. Mueller at one point did say that “this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime” — but in the context of an extended discussion about why he felt he wasn’t even allowed to make such a conclusion.

Instead, Barr focused on the fact that the final no-obstruction call was his own, which is indeed how it was presented at the time. But the problem was always about how he described Mueller’s views and findings and how they fed into Barr’s own.

Four years later — and even after creating some distance between himself and Trump — Barr seems to still fail to “fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report.

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