Instead of just releasing the special counsel’s findings, the U.S. attorney general spun the report to the benefit of President Trump.
Barr could have released special counsel Robert Mueller’s report from the beginning. Instead, the attorney general chose to twice present his own interpretation of the special counsel’s findings on foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. election ― before allowing members of the public to see the report and decide for themselves whether Trump and his associates did anything improper.
The first time the public received a glimpse of what was in the Mueller report was on March 24, when Barr sent a four-page letter to congressional leaders summarizing his conclusions from the report the special counsel team had submitted to Barr two days earlier.
The second time the public heard about the report’s content was in a Thursday morning press conference when Barr went out of his way to echo Trump talking points, attacking the media and the president’s “political opponents.”
To the Justice Department’s credit, the redactions in the Mueller report were relatively light ― allowing the public to see a substantial amount of the content.
But still, in his public comments, Barr made sure to paint as positive a picture of Trump before the report became widely available.
Here’s how the attorney general misled the public:
He left out the Trump campaign’s expectation of benefiting from hacked material.
In his letter to Congress on March 24, Barr wrote:
The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: ”[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election inference activities.”
While it’s true that the Mueller report did reach that conclusion, that quote is incomplete. Barr left out the first part, which was less complimentary to the Trump campaign.
Below is the full quote from the Mueller report, with the part Barr omitted in bold:
Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.
He said it was up to him to make a decision on obstruction of justice.
In his March 24 letter, Barr said Mueller’s team did not come to a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice in the course of the investigation. Therefore, Barr claimed, it was now up to him to make that determination.
“The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” he wrote.
Barr said he concluded that the evidence “is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
But Barr never had to make that legal conclusion, as Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, pointed out. And Mueller never asked Barr to so.
Indeed, the report said the special counsel’s team couldn’t come to such a conclusion:
[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.
The report also said that ultimately, the obstruction call wasn’t for Mueller to make. The special counsel decided not to make a decision on whether to prosecute Trump because the Justice Department’s position, according to an Office of Legal Counsel memo, is that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
“Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations ... this Office accepted OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction,” the report states.
Furthermore, it seems clear that Mueller and his team expected that ultimately, Congress would make the decision on obstruction of justice.
NBC News reported earlier that some in Mueller’s office had said “their intent was to leave the legal question open for Congress and the public to examine the evidence.”
“[W]e concluded that Congress can validly regulate the President’s exercise of official duties to prohibit actions motivated by a corrupt intent to obstruct justice,” the report says.
In other words, Congress can impeach the president if it wants to do so.
He gave an incomplete picture of Trump’s actions that could be construed as obstruction of justice.
“In cataloguing the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct,” Barr wrote in his March 24 letter.
The report doesn’t let Trump off the hook quite so easily. It says Trump tried to obstruct justice ― but he didn’t succeed because his staff refused to follow his orders.
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report reads.
The report detailed 10 acts by Trump that could amount to obstruction of justice.
He said Mueller found “no collusion.”
One of Trump’s favorite phrases is that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russian government in the 2016 elections. He has tweeted it 84 times.
Barr used the phrase four times in his 18-minute remarks in Thursday’s press conference:
“Put another way, the special counsel found no ‘collusion’ by any Americans in the IRA’s illegal activity.”
“But again, the special counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations. In other words, there was no evidence of Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with the Russian government’s hacking.”
“After finding no underlying collusion with Russia, the special counsel’s report goes on to consider whether certain actions of the president could amount to obstruction of the special counsel’s investigation.”
“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion.”
But the Mueller report never actually said the investigation found no collusion. In fact, the report explains specifically why it doesn’t use the term “collusion.” The word only appears in the report as part of this explanation or in quoting someone else.
Therefore, Barr repeatedly saying Mueller found “no collusion” was simply the attorney general adopting a Trump talking point.
He said Trump fully cooperated with the investigation.
Barr was extremely sympathetic to Trump in Thursday’s press conference. He tried to paint a picture of a president under extreme ― and unfair ― pressure, telling reporters, “As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates.”
He said Trump was “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” so it’s not surprising if he may have lashed out a bit. And, he added, Trump deserved credit for “fully cooperat[ing]” with the special counsel at all:
Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims.
Trump, however, didn’t fully cooperate. He refused repeated requests to give an interview to Mueller and his team. The report said the special counsel’s team considered issuing a subpoena for Trump to testify but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it: