Revelations that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s still-confidential report may contain damaging information about President Trump ignited a fresh round of political fighting on Thursday, ushering in a new phase of the nearly two-year-old battle over the Russia probe.
While Barr concluded the special counsel’s evidence was not sufficient to prove that the president obstructed justice, some of Mueller’s investigators have said their findings on obstruction were alarming and significant, one person with knowledge of their thinking said.
Some on the special counsel’s team were also frustrated that summaries they had prepared for different sections of the report — with the view that they could be made public fairly quickly — were not released by Barr, two people familiar with the matter said.
The developments put additional pressure on Barr to publicly release Mueller’s 400-page report in its entirety and prompted objections from Trump and his allies that Democrats are attempting to politicize what the president believes has been a 22-month “witch hunt.”
Barr has pledged as much transparency as the law and Justice Department policies allow, but House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) cited “troubling press reports” in a Thursday letter calling for Barr to “immediately release to the public any ‘summaries’ contained in the report that may have been prepared by the Special Counsel.” Nadler also asked Barr to turn over to the committee “all communications” between the Justice Department and Mueller’s office related to the report.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the Nadler letter.
Trump, meanwhile, took to social media to press his attacks on the Mueller report, part of a shift in tone from his earlier praise for portions of the probe’s findings that he viewed as favorable to him.
“According to polling, few people seem to care about the Russian Collusion Hoax, but some Democrats are fighting hard to keep the Witch Hunt alive,” he tweeted. “They should focus on legislation or, even better, an investigation of how the ridiculous Collusion Delusion got started — so illegal!”
Team's displeasure surfaces
The political debate over the minimal information released so far about Mueller’s lengthy report seems to have led to cracks in the special counsel’s disciplined and tight-lipped team. The displeasure among some who worked on the closely held inquiry has begun to surface in the days since Barr released a four-page letter to Congress on March 24 describing what he said were the principal conclusions of Mueller’s report.
In his letter, Barr said the special counsel did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. And he said that Mueller did not reach a conclusion “one way or the other” as to whether Trump’s conduct in office constituted obstruction of justice.
“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.
Trump immediately seized on Barr’s letter to declare on Twitter, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
Though Trump’s assertion was incorrect — Mueller pointedly did not reach any conclusion on obstruction, for example — he and his allies began wielding Barr’s summary as a political cudgel to dismiss not just Mueller’s work but any future investigations into the president’s conduct.
However, the news that Mueller’s full report could contain unflattering revelations about the president and his behavior has created a potential political problem for the White House and Trump’s reelection campaign.
After initially calling for the full report to be released, Trump seemed to temper his enthusiasm this week, writing on Twitter that “there is no amount of testimony or document production that can satisfy Jerry Nadler or Shifty Adam Schiff” — a reference to Nadler and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Referring to the Democrats more generally, he also tweeted, “NOTHING WILL EVER SATISFY THEM!”
Against this backdrop, grumbles from Mueller’s team have broken into public view. Some members of his office were particularly disappointed that Barr did not release summary information the special counsel team had prepared, according to three 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.
Two officials familiar with the matter added that the summaries the Mueller team had prepared were intended to be ready for public consumption in a timely manner, because the redactions could have been done fairly quickly.
Justice Department officials disputed that characterization, saying the summaries contained sensitive information that will probably require redaction.
Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Thursday that every page of Mueller’s confidential report was marked with a notation that it may contain confidential grand jury material, adding that it “therefore could not be publicly released.”
“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. “ . . . He does not believe the report should be released in ‘serial or piecemeal fashion.’ The Department continues to work with the Special Counsel on appropriate redactions to the report so that it can be released to the Congress and the public.”
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.
Democrats fault Barr
While the White House has publicly given Barr wide leeway to handle the Mueller report as he sees fit, congressional Democrats have been increasingly critical of his role, questioning whether he is trying to protect the president through his public letters and statements while he continues to review and redact portions of the Mueller report.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday revived her demand that Barr release Mueller’s report and tied it in spirit to a Democratic request to the Treasury Department for six years of Trump’s tax returns.
“Show us the Mueller report. Show us the tax returns,” Pelosi said at a news conference, appearing to momentarily address the president. “We’re not walking away because you said ‘no’ the first time around.”
With each passing day the report remains secret, the pressure on Barr increases, driven in part by congressional demands for transparency and by anonymous officials’ characterizations of the attorney general’s work.
Part of the difficulty for Barr, according to several current and former law enforcement officials, is that he is trying to follow Justice regulations that were written in the wake of Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, with an eye toward limiting the amount of information that can be made public.
Some senior Justice officials are also wary of repeating what they view as mistakes made in 2016 by then-FBI Director James B. Comey when he discussed details of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Because those senior officials contend Comey said too much about people who were not charged with crimes, they are now arguing internally for Barr to be more circumspect in public statements and releases of information.
People familiar with the discussions said there is frustration in the special counsel’s office with Barr’s limited characterization of their work; others say there is frustration in the Justice Department with Mueller’s decision not to reach a conclusion about whether the president tried to obstruct justice. In both camps, there is frustration that the special counsel regulations seem to make these differing viewpoints more difficult to resolve.
Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said the frustrations on Mueller’s team were coming from “disgruntled” staffers.
“They are a bunch of sneaky, unethical leakers,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham Wednesday night. “And they are rabid Democrats who hate the president of United States.”
Giuliani added, “I am absolutely confident that the report will bear out the conclusions. The conclusions: no obstruction, no Russian collusion of any kind. It will bear that out.”
During nearly two years of work, Mueller’s team — which included 19 lawyers and roughly 40 FBI agents, analysts and other professional staff — worked in near silence, speaking only rarely through public documents filed in court. The fact that some have been confiding in recent days to associates is a sign of the level of their distress.
Some members of Mueller’s team appear caught off guard by how thoroughly the president has used Barr’s letter to claim total victory, as the limited information about their work has been weaponized in the country’s highly polarized political environment, according to people familiar with their responses.
Their frustrations come as polls show many Americans have already drawn conclusions about the special counsel findings — even though only a handful of words from the report have so far been released.
Rosalind S. Helderman, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.