Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The more AG Barr says, the more skepticism over his actions seems appropriate

Barr has lost some credibility by various words and actions and by a general reluctance to commit the Mueller report with only the fewest and most necessary excisions to the public (the full report with no excisions at all should be shared with key members of Congress).

Attorney General William Barr testifying on the Justice Department’s budget proposal before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

At the risk of annoying, I write to express regret about something I wrote previously, relative to the Mueller report. It’s partly inspired by the latest news, from Attorney General William Barr’s congressional testimony yesterday. Barr now says he will release, within a week or so, a redacted version of the Mueller report. He has not been clear or specific about all the categories of material he might withhold.

To the (for me, declining) degree that we believe Barr is acting in good faith, with respect to material for which there are valid grounds to withhold from the general public, we should try to control our suspicions that he might err on the side of withholding things for political reasons, to spare his boss embarrassment or worse.

But Barr still won’t commit to releasing — to the Congress nor to the key committees with oversight authority over these matters, NOR even to the chairs of those committees — a full unredacted copy of the report.

Article continues after advertisement

My level of trust for Barr is insufficient to overcome the very reasonable suspicion that Barr will use his self-assigned discretion in order to avoid embarrassing President Trump. That wouldn’t be a good or valid reason. Skeptical Americans should be allowed to figure out whether they agree with Mueller’s decision not to recommend charges against Trump for any high crimes or potentially impeachable misdemeanors.

Of course, I don’t know Robert Mueller personally. But based on everything I know, I trust him. Princeton grad, Marine vet, U.S. Attorney, Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, FBI director, he has acquired and added to a reputation for ability and integrity at every stage. And, by the way, although this should be irrelevant but isn’t completely so, Mueller is a lifelong Republican, so perhaps Republicans should trust him too.

I hope Mueller testifies about his investigation someday, to a congressional committee.  I don’t expect that to happen, but I would watch every minute. I believe I would learn a lot. And how refreshing would it be to listen someone who you knew wasn’t spinning? Short of that, I hope his full report is made public, with only the most essential deletions for the most important and nonpartisan of reasons.

Short of that, I’m going to reserve judgment on the findings.

I wish I had reserved judgment sooner, specifically right after the short summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr was released. (Barr apparently didn’t like the term “summary.” Fine. You know what I mean. But I rushed, slightly, to at least a tentative judgment, which is the regret that I mentioned. I regret a piece I wrote two weeks ago, after the short no-indictment summary was released. in that piece,  I expressed surprise that — according to polls — hardly anyone seemed to change their opinion about anything and specifically on the question of whether Trump was guilty of conspiracy or obstruction of justice. (We really need to get out of the habit of using the term “collusion,” which is not the name of a crime.)

Unless Barr is a bigger and more audacious liar than I believe he is, Barr told us that Mueller did not recommend that Trump be charged with either of those crimes. And, to his credit, Barr did tell us that Mueller did not believe the evidence was sufficient to” exonerate” Trump, on the obstruction piece. That’s tantalizing, and we still don’t know what “no-charge-but-no-exoneration” means. We could guess, but why guess? We should find out, eventually, what Mueller meant by not-indicted-but-not-exonerated.

Barr specified that while Mueller did not exonerate Trump on obstruction, he, Barr, did exonerate him. We also learned that this Mueller-does-not-exonerate-but-Barr-does bit bordered on meaningless, because Barr has previously taken the (ahem) unusual position that it is impossible for a president to commit obstruction of justice because the president is the ultimate boss of the Department of Justice (and, I guess, according to Barr’s unusual view, you can’t criminally obstruct yourself).

In his own adorable way, the current occupant of the Oval went way overboard, ignoring the very important caveat on obstruction – that even Barr said that Mueller did not exonerate Trump on the question of obstruction – by tweeting and shouting from the rooftop, along with far too many of his surrogates, that the report (which we haven’t seen yet) constituted “total and complete exoneration” and that the entire investigation (despite producing many indictments and guilty pleas from Trump-associated persons and even more Russians — was, you guessed it, a total witch hunt. What the heck is wrong with that guy?

Last week, we learned (secondhand, through unattributed leaks) that members of Mueller’s team were unhappy with the Barr summary, which they reportedly felt understated some of the troubling findings in the full report and perhaps gave Trump a clearer slate than the public might think if they saw the full report.

Article continues after advertisement

I realize that most of you know all this. I’m writing mostly just to walk back that one post mentioned above. Trump has not been exonerated. There’s no rush to decide whether there is serious evidence of at least obstruction. And Barr has lost some credibility, at least with me, by various words and actions and by a general reluctance to commit the report with only the fewest and most necessary excisions to the public (and the full report with no excisions at all should be shared with key members of Congress). And it should happen with all deliberate speed. And until it does, anyone who harbors suspicions that there’s some evidence of serious Trumpian improprieties being withheld and watered down and slow-walked is entitled to harbor those suspicions, subject to a rethink when we know more.