William Barr can no longer effectively serve as the attorney general of the United States. He has diminished the office with his partisanship, and the American public simply cannot have faith that he will fairly and impartially oversee any of the criminal and civil investigations regarding President Donald Trump that may be in the Justice Department's pipeline.
On Wednesday, Barr testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His testimony came less than two weeks after the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailing his nearly two-year investigation into Russian election meddling and possible obstruction by Trump. But Barr’s testimony was overshadowed, before he even began speaking, by the uncovering of a letter Mueller wrote to Barr that suggested Mueller was frustrated by the way the attorney general had initially characterized the report’s findings to Congress.
Barr’s testimony was overshadowed by the uncovering of a letter that suggested Mueller was frustrated by the way the attorney general had characterized the report’s findings to Congress.
In a letter given to lawmakers on March 24, Barr claimed he was stating the “principal conclusions” of the special counsel’s 400-plus page report. But it was reasonably clear even before reading the redacted version of the report released to the public on April 18 that Barr's summary was misleading — it quoted only certain parts of the report’s sentences, mid-sentence, and many things about the letter simply didn’t add up. Similarly, Barr's letter cryptically jumped from Mueller’s “decision to describe facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions” to the not-so-obvious conclusion that the attorney general, then, must “determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.”
After the report was released publicly, it became crystal clear that Barr’s letter had misrepresented Mueller’s “principal conclusions” — particularly on the issue of obstruction. And now, thanks to new reporting and the release Wednesday of the March 27 letter from Mueller to Barr, we know that Mueller at least in part agreed.
According to Mueller’s March 27 letter: “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 conclusion.” Mueller continued: “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.”
Those who read Barr’s March 24 letter and then the actual Mueller report were likely able to come to this conclusion on their own. For example, as others have explained in greater detail, Mueller indicated that his decision not to come to a clear ruling on the obstruction question was motivated in large part by existing DOJ policy regarding the indictment of a sitting president. Barr, however, implied the decision was because of thorny factual and legal issues.
Mueller also went out of his way to say that if the facts had “exonerated” Trump he would have said so. DOJ guidelines prohibit the traditional prosecution of a president while in office, but that does not mean Trump couldn’t be indicted once he leaves office, among other scenarios.
Ultimately, it takes a great deal for a lawyer to put a complaint about something so significant and fraught in writing; such a move creates a factual record, important if one fears one's words or actions may be misrepresented. For Mueller, a man considered cautious by nature, to have chosen this route speaks to the degree to which he may have felt betrayed by Barr, a friend and former colleague.
More important, this latest development underscores how Barr has over and over during this process deceived the American public. Mueller reportedly told Barr he should release his executive summaries to the public, which makes sense given that these summaries contain almost no redactions — clearly they were written so they could be widely distributed and read. After Mueller said this, however, Barr testified before Congress. He could have used this opportunity to be honest about the differences in opinion between himself and the special counsel. Instead he said nothing. In fact, he went one step further and misled Congress and the American people.
When asked by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., if Mueller supported his conclusion, Barr replied, “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.”
But he did know. He knew that Mueller felt his report was not being properly contextualized and wanted more information to be released so that voters and lawmakers could make their own determinations on several questions not definitively answered by the report — especially whether or not the president had obstructed justice. Prosecutors can debate if this fits within the exacting requirements of the statute used to prosecute false statements made under oath to Congress, 18 USC Section 1001 — or whether Barr, a savvy lawyer, walked the line just enough to avoid breaking the law.
But that cannot be the standard for an attorney general of the United States. We should expect and demand objectively, neutrality, honesty and integrity from our top law enforcement official. What Mueller was concerned with — ensuring public faith in his report and the investigation — has been severely diminished. And now our faith in ongoing investigations, as well as ongoing litigation involving the president in which Department of Justice is involved, is also at risk.