The Justice Department said on Tuesday that it would release Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Thursday, but it didn’t say how. Finally, late on Wednesday, word emerged: Attorney General William Barr will deliver a press conference at 9:30 a.m., followed by the release of the report to Congress and then the public later in the morning.
No wonder DOJ waited so long to detail the rollout: Barr’s decision is baffling. Since Mueller completed his report, Barr has made a series of judgment calls—on whether there was evidence for an obstruction-of-justice charge, on producing a summary of Mueller’s principal conclusions, and on redacting the full report. Each of these was questioned, but was arguably defensible. But Barr’s decision to hold a press conference on the report, before either the public or Congress has even had a chance to see it, doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps Barr has good reasons that he is not sharing, but based on what’s publicly known, it’s easy to wonder whether he’s trying to spin the report to Donald Trump’s benefit.
For one, it’s hard to imagine what the public gains from a press conference held before anyone has read the report. Barr has already given his own gloss, in his four-page letter to Congress in March, so there’s no evident need for him to do so again. Reporters won’t be able to ask the most informed questions without having seen new material, though The Washington Post reports Barr will also address “process questions,” presumably related to redactions. But a press conference will produce sound bites from Barr that can air repeatedly.
For another, Barr suggested in a March letter to Representative Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Oversight Committee, that another summary would be unwise. “Everyone will soon be able to read it on their own,” he wrote. “I do not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report or to release it in serial or piecemeal fashion.”
By holding a press conference, Barr also invites comparisons with former FBI Director James Comey’s July 2016 announcement that he would not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server. This is deeply ironic. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who will be present at Barr’s press conference today, cited that press conference in a memo that Trump used to justify Comey’s May 2017 firing. But Rosenstein appointed Mueller after allegations emerged that Trump had pressured Comey to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Rosenstein noted two problems with Comey’s press conference. First, he was effectively usurping the authority of the attorney general to make a determination on charges. This is obviously not a problem for Barr, who is the attorney general. Rosenstein also wrote, “The Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.” That sounds more familiar, since Mueller declined some prosecutions. By commenting publicly, Barr risks being seen as meddling in the process, just as Comey did.
Each of Barr’s decisions thus far has been subject to criticism, but within reason. Since Mueller didn’t make a determination on obstruction, someone had to—even if Barr’s decision is likely to be second-guessed, based on the material in the report. Similarly, there’s a case that Barr was right to produce his summary of the principal conclusions—even if one distrusts the veracity of the particular summary Barr released. And while the redactions break with the precedents set with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and their scale will be debated, Barr’s defenders point to the need to preserve ongoing investigations, protect counterintelligence sources and methods, and maintain the secrecy of grand-jury testimony.
There’s no such easy explanation or justification for the prerelease press conference, though. Barr may view his actions as entirely within the attorney general’s purview, but that doesn’t make them appropriate. The cloak-and-dagger machinations, and the decision to hold the press conference before releasing the report, inevitably create the impression that Barr is trying to hide something—not unlike Trump’s pugilistic approach to the Mueller probe. That, in turn, casts doubt on his earlier decisions.
What’s the point? Instead of first holding a press conference, why not just hand over the report, redactions and all—just as Barr said was in the public’s interest?