Mueller’s rift with the attorney general
An extraordinary rupture between special counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr became public this week when it was revealed that Mueller complained that Barr’s four-page summary of his findings was misleading. In a letter written on March 27 and leaked this week, Mueller wrote that Barr’s summary, in which the attorney general absolved President Trump of collusion and obstruction of justice, “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” and had left the public confused about “critical aspects of the results.” Mueller also asked Barr to immediately release the special counsel’s own summaries of the Russia investigation’s findings. Barr did not, waiting three more weeks to release a redacted version of Mueller’s final report, again claiming it exonerated the president.
At a highly contentious hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr this week called Mueller’s letter “a bit snitty,” and defended his own interpretation of the investigation’s findings. Mueller’s work “concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general,” Barr said. “At that point, it was my baby.” Barr also continued to defend Trump’s conduct during the Russia investigation. The president’s many attempts to curtail or end the investigation, including asking for Mueller to be fired or told not to investigate the 2016 election, were not obstruction of justice, Barr said, because Trump was “falsely accused.” Several Democrats called on Barr to resign. Later, the attorney general said he would not testify about the Mueller report before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, citing its plan to have staff lawyers question him.
What the columnists said
Barr is rocketing up the list of “worst attorneys general in history,” said Charles Pierce in Esquire.com. It was already obvious that Barr grossly distorted the Mueller report in his four-page summary, allowing the White House to shape the narrative “for a few crucial days.” Now we know his behavior was even more egregious than that. Barr had already received Mueller’s letter when he was asked in a Senate hearing on April 10 whether the special counsel supported his decision to clear the president on obstruction of justice. “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr said—a deliberate lie under oath. It’s now obvious that Barr should be “impeached and removed from office.”
Mueller’s complaints are trivial, said Andrew McCarthy in FoxNews.com. The special counsel didn’t actually dispute that Barr accurately summarized the report’s “no-crime bottom line.” Mueller was miffed because he wanted to slime Trump with all the “un-presidential escapades” that were uncovered but didn’t lead to criminal charges. But that’s not a prosecutor’s job. “That is the stuff of political narratives.”
Mueller has good reason to be angry, said Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. In documenting 10 instances of possible obstruction by Trump, he noted he couldn’t indict a sitting president under existing guidelines, but said there are “constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct”—that is, impeachment hearings by Congress. But Barr took it upon himself to clear the president anyway. The strategy worked, said David Graham in The Atlantic.com. “Even though the report can read as an impeachment referral to Congress,” Trump and his allies had three weeks to bake in Barr’s conclusion that the president had been cleared. “By the time its full text was released, the ardor for impeachment hearings among legislators and the public had faded.”
“If Mueller wanted President Trump or members of his campaign brought up on obstruction of justice charges, he should have said so,” said Tiana Lowe in WashingtonExaminer.com. Instead, he punted. So, Barr was within his rights as attorney general to draw his own conclusions. It’s not Barr’s fault that Mueller didn’t like the resulting media coverage.
The stage is now set for a constitutional “battle royale,” said Noah Feldman in Bloomberg.com. House Democrats are following up on Mueller with a blizzard of subpoenas and separate investigations into Trump’s taxes and his businesses. Trump says he’ll fight the subpoenas and refuse to let anyone in the White House testify. Executive privilege and Congress’ right to investigate are both products “of constitutional inference, custom, and raw assertion of power,” and if the courts aren’t willing to act as referees, Trump and Congress may be at an impasse. We are truly in uncharted waters.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Reuters, Newscom, Getty ■