the national interest

William Barr Seems to Be Covering Up Something Bad for Trump

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last evening, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that reporters and House Democrats were smearing Attorney General William Barr by implying that his summary of the Mueller report was anything other than completely faithful and representative. The Journal sneered at “the impression, abetted by a press corps that was fully invested in the collusion story, that Mr. Barr is somehow lying about Mr. Mueller’s real conclusions.” This was “preposterous,” the editorial explained, because Barr “surely understood on releasing the summary of conclusions last week that he would be open to contradiction by Mr. Mueller if he took such liberties.”

The editorial was published at 7:24 p.m. Minutes before, and probably too late to make any alterations, the New York Times broke the news that Barr was in fact contradicted. How could anybody think Barr would be stupid enough to lie when Mueller could expose him, asks the Journal, at almost literally the precise moment when Mueller’s team exposes Barr for lying.

The Times reports that Mueller’s famously leak-free team was moved to break its silence by Barr’s slanted summary of its work. The news from the Times, as well as the follow-up report from the Washington Post, conveys very little information about the substance of the report. There’s no reason to doubt Barr’s conclusion that Mueller was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russian government. Whether the unflattering information in the report contains evidence of noncriminal misconduct with Russia — remember, collusion is not a crime — or centers entirely around obstruction of justice remains to be seen.

It does seem clear, though, that Barr has not been dealing from the top of the deck. More evidence of his bad faith can be found in his putative reason for abridging Mueller’s conclusions. The special counsel’s report provided summaries of its work. The Times, apparently relying on Justice Department sources, reports that Mueller’s summaries could not be published, because they “contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.”

But the special counsel flatly contradicts this in its leak to the Post. The summaries, says a special counsel source, were deliberately written “so that the front matter from each section could have been released immediately — or very quickly … It was done in a way that minimum redactions, if any, would have been necessary, and the work would have spoken for itself.”

(Fordham law professor Jed Shugerman spotted this contradiction.) It’s possible, of course, the Justice Department is right and the special counsel is wrong. But it seems far more likely that Barr has, at minimum, spun the report in the most favorable way, in order to create the impression that it has cleared Trump. This has enabled the president and his defenders to spike the football, and present any efforts to examine the actual report as sore losers demanding to play overtime after the game has been decided.

NBC News adds more reporting on two important counts. On obstruction of justice, it “includes more information than has been made public.” This is significant because Barr’s letter was ambiguous on this point, stating that “most of [Trump’s actions] have been the subject of public reporting.” It wasn’t clear if “most” meant “nearly all” or just “more than half.” NBC’s report points toward substantial new evidence of obstruction in the report – “most” does not mean “basically everything.” There’s more shady activity to obstruct the probe than we know.

More importantly, NBC cites members of Mueller’s team who say the report “paint a picture of a campaign whose members were manipulated by a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation.” This phrase leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but most of the interpretations would be, strictly speaking, bad.

Republican messaging in recent days has made it blindingly obvious the Mueller report is not a document Trump fans would enjoy reading around the fireplace. Republicans have gone from supporting its full release — which House Republicans supported last week in a unanimous vote — to cautioning against it as a distraction. Representative Devin Nunes, who has largely directed Trump’s defense in Congress and the right-wing media, appeared on Fox News last night and introduced a new term: “Mueller dossier.”

“Dossier” is the term used to (accurately) describe the reports collected by British agent Christopher Steele. Steele’s work actually was a dossier: a collection of tips and leads from sources he had some reason to credit, but not all of which would pan out. It was not a finished intelligence product.

Mueller’s report is not a dossier. It is in fact held to a higher standard of proof than an intelligence product. As prosecutors, Mueller’s team needed to establish findings at a level that could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

Nunes nonetheless used the term “dossier” three times in the span of a minute to describe Mueller’s conclusion. He is obviously priming the Trump fan base to disregard adverse findings.

This post has been updated.

William Barr Seems to Be Covering Up Something Bad for Trump