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Mueller Complained to Barr About His Spin on Russian Investigation

Robert Mueller was not pleased with the spin placed on the report he submitted to the Justice Department in March. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the eve of Attorney General William Barr’s scheduled testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a leak informed the world that the AG had received a previously undisclosed letter of complaint from special counsel Robert Mueller about the “summary” of his legal conclusions that Barr released back on March 24. The Washington Post had a look at the letter, and the most abundant scoop:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrote a letter in late March complaining to Attorney General William P. Barr that a four-page memo to Congress describing the principal conclusions of the investigation into President Trump “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of Mueller’s work, according to a copy of the letter reviewed Tuesday by The Washington Post …

[The letter] revealed a degree of dissatisfaction with the public discussion of Mueller’s work that shocked senior Justice Department officials, according to people familiar with the discussions …

“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” [Mueller said].

According to Justice Department sources, there was a follow-up phone conversation between Mueller and Barr in which the former special counsel didn’t directly blame the attorney general for the deception, except insofar as he made it possible by inadequate disclosure:

A day after the letter was sent, Barr and Mueller spoke by phone for about 15 minutes, according to law enforcement officials.

In that call, Mueller said he was concerned that news coverage of the obstruction investigation was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work, according to Justice Department officials.

When Barr pressed him whether he thought Barr’s letter was inaccurate, Mueller said he did not, but felt that the media coverage of the letter was misinterpreting the investigation, officials said.

It sure sounds like Barr’s staff either leaked the letter themselves so that it wouldn’t come to light in the middle of a hearing, or leaped on it quickly in order to spin their boss’s spin on who misled whom about what.

Mueller’s letter, says the Post, argued for the early release of the introduction and executive summary of the report even as redactions to the full report were being negotiated. But Barr refused, which succeeded in maintaining his March 24 spin on the report for a while longer.

The New York Times notes that Barr’s staff blames Mueller for all the confusion over the obstruction-of-justice allegations against Trump:

They expressed irritation that Mr. Mueller fell short of his assignment by declining to make a decision about whether Mr. Trump broke the law. That left Mr. Barr to clear Mr. Trump without the special counsel’s backing.

The senior department officials also found Mr. Mueller’s rationale for stopping short of deciding whether Mr. Trump committed a crime to be confusing and contradictory, and they concluded that Mr. Mueller’s report showed that there was no case against Mr. Trump.

That’s definitely not what the rest of the world concluded when the report finally went public:

[W]hen Mr. Mueller’s report was released on April 18, it painted a far more damning picture of Mr. Trump and showed that Mr. Mueller believed that significant evidence existed that Mr. Trump obstructed justice.

Indeed, the picture was damning enough that it revived nearly dormant talk among Democrats of initiating impeachment proceedings at the apparent invitation of Mueller himself.

If nothing else, the disclosure adds some texture to the questions Barr will face tomorrow about his interactions with Mueller and his team and why he chose to characterize the report as he did, whitewashing it right up to the moment it was released. Perhaps it will even interfere with Senate Republican plans to indulge in hours of fun encouraging Barr to go down the rabbit hole of allegations that the FBI and Justice Department tried to rig the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton.

Barr may also face questioning by the House Judiciary Committee later this week if ground rules can be worked out. Any hopes he had of burying the Mueller investigation have certainly been dashed.

Mueller Complained to Barr About the Spin on His Report