When the Mueller Investigation Ended, the Battle Over Its Conclusions Began


MAY 2, 2019

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, sought to have Attorney General William P. Barr release more details from his report than Mr. Barr originally did. – Andrew Harnik/AP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Attorney General William P. Barr summarized the special counsel’s conclusions in a March letter, prompting President Trump to crow that he had been exonerated, the special counsel’s prosecutors knew immediately what the public would learn weeks later: The letter was a sparse and occasionally misleading representation of their exhaustive findings.

What followed was a dayslong, behind-the-scenes tussle over the first public presentation of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history.

A richer picture of that battle emerged on Wednesday — one of testy letters (Mr. Barr described one as “snitty”) and at least one tense phone call between the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and Mr. Barr. The two were longtime friends who found themselves on opposite sides of an embattled president.

The growing evidence of a split between them also brought fresh scrutiny on Mr. Barr, who on at least three occasions in recent weeks has seemed to try to outmaneuver Mr. Mueller. First, he released his four-page letter on March 24 outlining investigators’ findings; then he held an unusual news conference on the day the Mueller report was released; and on Tuesday night, the Justice Department put out a statement that significantly played down the concerns among Mr. Mueller’s team.

In other words, Mr. Barr, who said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday that “we have to stop using the criminal justice system as a political weapon,” now stands accused of doing exactly that.

The drama began around midday on March 22, when a security officer working for Mr. Mueller arrived at the fifth floor of the Justice Department to deliver copies of his highly anticipated report to the attorney general and his top aides.

Mr. Barr worked through that weekend reading the report, his aides in occasional contact with members of Mr. Mueller’s team. Two days later, hours before Mr. Barr’s letter was sent to Congress, Mr. Mueller’s investigators reminded Justice Department officials about executive summaries they had written to be condensed, easily digestible versions of their 448-page report.

But Mr. Barr used almost none of the actual language from the Mueller report, and his letter made the report appear far less damning for the president than it turned out to be. In one instance, Mr. Barr took Mr. Mueller’s words out of context to suggest that the president had no motive to obstruct justice. In another, he used a fragment of a sentence in the report about the Trump campaign and Russians that made a conclusion seem less damaging for Mr. Trump’s advisers.

By the next morning, Mr. Trump had spent hours claiming he had been exonerated by a report the world had not yet seen. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” he wrote in a tweet early on March 25 — actually a retweet of himself from the day before.

In the middle of this presidential bluster, Mr. Mueller wrote Mr. Barr a letter expressing his and his team’s concerns that the attorney general had inadequately portrayed their conclusions. Pointedly, he attached the report’s executive summaries as a reminder that his investigators had already done the work of distilling their findings.

It is unclear what Mr. Barr did in response to the letter — its full contents have not been made public — but two days later, another dispatch from Mr. Mueller arrived. It was written in careful, lawyerly language, but the anger and frustration among the special counsel’s team was clear.

Mr. Mueller said that the attorney general’s public presentation of the report’s findings from days earlier had sown “public confusion about critical aspects 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,” Mr. Mueller wrote.

Mr. Barr indicated on Wednesday that the letter had annoyed him, calling it “a bit snitty” and “probably written by one of his staff people.”

But after receiving Mr. Mueller’s second letter, he picked up the phone and delivered a message to the special counsel: Stop the letters.

“I said, ‘Bob, what is with the letter?’” Mr. Barr told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?”

Mr. Barr said that he asked Mr. Mueller whether anything was inaccurate in how he had described the report’s conclusions.

“He was very clear with me that he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report,” Mr. Barr said, adding that Mr. Mueller said he was bothered by how the news media had portrayed his conclusions about whether the president had obstructed justice.

Mr. Mueller’s March 27 letter makes no mention of news reports.

During the call, according to Mr. Barr, the special counsel pressed again for Mr. Barr to immediately make public the executive summaries to provide a more accurate picture of the conclusions of the Mueller report. Mr. Barr said he was disinclined to put out the report in “piecemeal” fashion.

In the weeks that followed, Mr. Barr repeatedly and publicly made veiled criticisms of Mr. Mueller and his team. Asked during congressional testimony in early April whether the Mueller investigation had been a “witch hunt,” he demurred. On April 18, hours before the report’s release, he gave a news conference during which he said he disagreed with Mr. Mueller’s legal reasoning on the obstruction of justice issue. He also went out of his way to explain how Mr. Trump’s behavior — when put in context — was understandable.

At this point, weeks after Mr. Mueller delivered his report, all the public had seen of his work was what Mr. Barr had summarized in his four-page letter.

On Wednesday, Mr. Barr was clearly peeved, even defiant, at the criticism that his actions had played a distorting role in molding the narrative of the Mueller report in a way that benefited his boss.

He called the controversy “mind-bendingly bizarre” because he always intended to release a fuller version of the report.

For his part, Mr. Mueller has made no public statements since the conclusion of his work. It is not yet known when, or even if, he will testify before Congress.

Courtesy/Source: NY Times