In today’s blockbuster hearings, Senate Judiciary Committee members cross-examined Attorney General William Barr on his short March 24 letter summarizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. In that letter, Barr stated that Mueller had declined to reach a judgment on whether Donald Trump had obstructed justice. Senate Democrats seized on a letter by Mueller complaining that Barr’s short report to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions” and therefore threatened to “undermine a central purpose” of the special counsel: to ensure “full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Criticism of Barr’s summary makes much ado about nothing. Barr released the Mueller report just a few weeks later, with the crucial second volume on obstruction of justice virtually unredacted. Members of Congress and the public can reach their own judgments now on the Mueller report’s findings on obstruction. How Barr characterized Mueller’s findings makes no difference.
But fixating on who wrote and said what about someone’s characterization of someone else’s report deflects attention from the most important thing about Barr’s letter: The attorney general did not just summarize Mueller’s conclusions; he also filled the gap left by Mueller’s refusal to decide on obstruction. “The evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” Barr concluded in his letter. He and Rod Rosenstein, then the deputy attorney general, reached this view “without regard to, and … not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”