David A. Graham: Mueller’s damning portrait of Trump
“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusion,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results 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.”
The letter is measured in the way that one would expect the staid, lifelong G-man to be. Mueller does not directly accuse Barr of misleading anyone, though it’s difficult to take any other conclusion from his words. (Barr says Mueller told him that media coverage was misinterpreting the letter, which is a cop-out, and ignores the fact that Mueller pointed to the letter itself.) But the timeline that Mueller lays out, and the very fact of the letter, suggests strong frustration, especially given Mueller’s extremely tight-lipped approach throughout the investigation.
Mueller writes that he first told Barr on March 5 that his team was writing introductions and executive summaries that would make for effective and accurate summaries of his conclusions. He reiterated that on March 24, two days after he delivered the report to Barr. Barr then released his summary, which he now insists is not a summary, to Congress and the public, later that afternoon.
Based on a plain reading of Barr’s letter, immediate media reports portrayed Mueller as having found no collusion and no obstruction of justice. In fact, the report’s findings on both of these questions were considerably more nuanced; Mueller avoided the fraught and nonlegal term collusion, saying he found no criminal conspiracy but considerable links between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, and strongly suggested that Trump had obstructed justice, even while saying he didn’t feel he could charge Trump.
Mueller was immediately worried. The following day, March 25, he wrote, his team “communicated our concern to the Department.” Apparently not receiving any satisfactory response, Mueller escalated his efforts, writing his letter to Barr on March 27. Putting the complaint in writing formalized it. It also all but guaranteed that the the letter would eventually make it to the public, as it now has. Lawyers are typically very careful about what they do and don’t put in writing for precisely that reason, but throughout the Trump presidency, government officials have seen the need to write memos for posterity when concerned about actions by the administration.
Read: The complicated friendship of Robert Mueller and William Barr
How did Barr respond to this? The two men spoke on March 28, according to the Post, and the attorney general pressed Mueller on whether anything in his letter to Congress was factually inaccurate. Mueller reportedly said no, but that’s beside the point. Even if no specific sentence in the letter was wrong, it misleadingly downplayed the gravity and scope of the report, and misrepresented the thinking behind Mueller’s decision not to bring obstruction charges. “We used the language from the report to state those bottom-line conclusions,” Barr said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. But as a side-by-side comparison of Barr’s and Mueller’s words shows, the attorney general selectively quoted from the report, and took many of those quotations out of context. The result was, as Mueller noted, that the public was misled about the contents of the report.