WASHINGTON – Ninety minutes before Robert Mueller’s final report on his Russia probe was released, Attorney General William Barr previewed it from a podium on the seventh floor of the Justice Department.
Barr declared the special counsel had found “substantial evidence” President Donald Trump’s actions toward the investigation were driven by his “sincere belief” it was politically tainted. Still, Barr said, the White House “fully cooperated” with the probe.
Yet Mueller’s report painted a far different picture. It chronicled at least 10 examples of efforts by Trump to obstruct the investigation and offered damaging details about his campaign’s embrace of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election even though he didn’t find a conspiracy.
Now, Barr faces criticism and damage to his reputation for jumping ahead of the long-awaited findings, using selective language and omitting key details to shape a narrative much friendlier toward Trump and his conservative supporters than the appraisal that Mueller offered in painstaking detail over 448 pages.
With Mueller not appearing at the news conference Thursday, Barr was able to substitute his own more pleasing patina on the report along with sound bites that soothed the right. Trump’s backers embraced the gambit enthusiastically, starting with the president.
“Game Over,” Trump tweeted immediately after Barr’s performance. And on Friday, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and Trump ally, tweeted a photo showing him holding up the front page of the conservative Washington Times splashed with a big photo of Barr and the headline: “No Russia Conspiracy, No Collusion.”
But Barr is facing scathing criticism from other quarters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called his performance “regrettably partisan” and a number of legal analysts agreed.
“The devastating nature of the report makes the performance of the attorney general in characterizing it at his press conference prior to its release a particularly inappropriate spectacle,” according to an analysis of the report posted Thursday on the Lawfare blog. It said “Trump could not have asked for a friendlier summary of a deeply unfriendly document.”
It was something of a repeat performance by Barr. He drew similar criticism last month when he sent Congress a four-page letter that he said conveyed Mueller’s key findings. Barr said Mueller found he couldn’t “exonerate” Trump on the question of obstruction of justice but Barr added that he could — and he did.
Justice Department officials defended Barr’s performance. Mueller did present substantial evidence in his report supporting Barr’s statement that Trump was frustrated and felt undermined, according to an official who asked not to be identified.
Officials also defended Barr’s other assertions, saying White House lawyers turned over thousands of documents, let Mueller’s team interview many aides, submitted written answers to questions and didn’t assert executive privilege to withhold information.
But the language that Trump was motivated by a “sincere belief” that the probe was politically tainted came from Barr, not Mueller.
Nor did Barr mention that Mueller found substantial evidence that Trump sought to interfere in the probe, encouraging witnesses “not to cooperate,” trying to remove Mueller and urging former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the investigation to ways to prevent meddling in “future elections.”
In his news conference, Barr said “the bottom line” is that Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded” in Russian government efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election. While that’s accurate, Barr didn’t mention that the special counsel said he “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.”
The Justice Department official said Barr accurately provided the bottom-line conclusions. Then, the official said, the attorney general — who had promised as much “transparency” as possible — released the report with relatively few passages withheld even though department regulations didn’t require him to do so.
But a committee in the Democratic-controlled House already has subpoenaed Barr to provide Mueller’s full report and all of the evidence behind it. And while Barr has said he’ll testify before congressional panels on May 1 and 2, Democrats now are demanding to hear from Mueller too.