William Barr’s letter summarizing Robert Mueller’s report was a high point in the Trump presidency. It set off wild celebrations in the White House, and inspired Trump and his defenders to declare total vindication in the Russia “Witch Hunt”/”Hoax.”
The letter was also a tightly crafted spin job, selectively presenting the facts in the softest form. The misleading nature of the letter has grown increasingly evident — first as Mueller’s prosecutors leaked complaints, then as the report itself painted a far more damning portrait than Barr allowed, and finally last night as the Washington Post reported Mueller himself objected to Barr’s account.
One conclusion from the report is that Barr clearly misled Congress in his testimony earlier this month. Barr testified on April 9, weeks after receiving Mueller’s letter complaining that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report. Representative Charlie Crist asked Barr about reports “that members of the special counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24th letter, that it does not adequately or accurately necessarily portray the report’s findings.”
“Do you know what they’re referencing with that?,” he asked. “No, I don’t,” replied Barr.
At the Senate hearings, Senator Chris Von Hollen asked, “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” Barr replied, “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.”
At worst, Barr perjured himself. At best, he deliberately withheld information in order to give a misleading response.
It is a fairly safe assumption that news of Mueller’s written objections to Barr were leaked in advance of Barr’s latest testimony by Barr’s side. The advance leak reduces the explosiveness of what would have been a live revelation, and it also contains explanatory accounts from Barr’s supporters, but not from Mueller’s. The Post’s account summarizes a phone call between Mueller and Barr. It reads an awful lot like Barr’s side of the story:
In that call, Mueller said he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction investigation was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work, according to Justice Department officials. Mueller did not express similar concerns about the public discussion of the investigation of Russia’s election interference, the officials said.
When Barr pressed Mueller on whether he thought Barr’s memo to Congress was inaccurate, Mueller said he did not but felt that the media coverage of it was misinterpreting the investigation, officials said.
According to this account, then, Mueller may have written that Barr’s letter mischaracterized the report, but he admitted to Barr he didn’t mean that! He really just meant he disagreed with some news reports about the letter.
Ever hear somebody boast about an argument they had where they destroyed the other guy’s position and forced them to admit they were wrong? This sounds like one of those stories. Mueller wrote that Barr’s letter “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his work. And the fact that he made the effort to record his objections suggests he had serious grounds for dispute. But apparently Barr got Mueller to admit on the phone that Barr did nothing wrong.
Given all we know about Barr’s behavior, it seems skepticism of the accuracy of the account might be called for. Instead, Trump’s defenders have seized on this part of the story to “prove” that Mueller didn’t really object to Barr’s letter at all:
Again, this line that Mueller supposedly admitted there was nothing misleading in Barr’s letter comes from Justice Department officials who have already mislead the public about Mueller’s position repeatedly.
The fact that Trump’s defenders would invest so much credence in a demonstrably untrustworthy official like Barr shows how much they have invested in Barr’s summary. It is the Barr letter, rather than Mueller’s extremely damning report, upon which they have hinged their claims of vindication.