The Twitterverse was set ablaze last night, with the usual media suspects following suit, over a pair of stories in the New York Times and Washington Post. The pieces' headlines suggested that Robert Mueller's team is unhappy with the manner in which Attorney General William Barr issued his widely-read memo laying out the bottom line conclusions of the Special Counsel office's recently-completed Russia investigation, in advance of a public release of the full (albeit redacted) report. Upon examining these pieces, which pretty obviously rely on the same unnamed sources, the prospect that Barr engaged in a partisan, Trump-abetting cover-up dims considerably. First, the leaks are secondhand, coming from the friends and "associates" of an unknown number of Mueller investigators, of unknown seniority within the probe. Here's the Times:
Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others...Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public...It was unclear how much discussion Mr. Mueller and his investigators had with senior Justice Department officials about how their findings would be made public. It was also unclear how widespread the vexation is among the special counsel team, which included 19 lawyers, about 40 F.B.I. agents and other personnel. At the same time, Mr. Barr and his advisers have expressed their own frustrations about Mr. Mueller and his team. Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials believe the special counsel’s investigators fell short of their task by declining to decide whether Mr. Trump illegally obstructed the inquiry
So someone or someones within Mueller's orbit (quite possibly lower-level investigators) apparently grumbled to "associates" that they were dissatisfied with Barr's summary of their report's top take-aways. We have no indication that this concern is shared widely, or extends to the investigation's upper echelon. There's also no suggestion that Barr inaccurately characterized either the collusion or the obstruction component; only griping that he didn't sufficiently convey the extent to which there will be damaging information about Trump's conduct in the full document -- especially, it seems, vis-a-vis potential obstruction of justice. The Post:
Members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant. “It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity...The report was prepared “so that the front matter from each section could have been released immediately — or very quickly,” the official said. “It was done in a way that minimum redactions, if any, would have been necessary, and the work would have spoken for itself.” Mueller’s team assumed the information was going to be made available to the public, the official said, “and so they prepared their summaries to be shared in their own words — and not in the attorney general’s summary of their work, as turned out to be the case.”
Three points: (1) Even if you take these vague and unsourced complaints at face value, it doesn't sound like anyone is disputing Barr's assertion that Mueller did not conclude that the Trump campaign had conspired or coordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 election. One of the more popular talking points on the Left these days is that it's possible Mueller couldn't make a prosecutable case on conspiracy, but that doesn't rule out "collusion," as more broadly defined. The fact that the secondhand leaking from unidentified elements of Mueller's team has focused on the obstruction piece, not Team Trump's "no collusion" chest-thumping, suggests that "no collusion" may be sweepingly accurate. And if that's true, there's no underlying crime or corruption to cover-up via obstructing justice.
(2) Barr explicitly stated in his original memo that there was evidence pointing to obstruction, as well as countervailing evidence. He wrote that Mueller lays out a case for and against obstruction in his report, ultimately deciding to remain neutral on the question of whether or not the information he gathered should result in any charges. Barr and DAG Rod Rosenstein decided it should not, although I understand why Barr's team is reportedly frustrated that Mueller punted on this key decision. I suppose you could argue that Barr could have played up the notion that some of what Mueller found on obstruction was troubling for the president, rather than merely mentioning the existence of findings on the negative side of the ledger. My understanding of Barr's letter from the very start, further reinforced in last week's follow-up, was that of course there will be material in the full document that is deeply unflattering to Trump. But the material was not tantamount to proof of collusion or chargeable obstruction of justice. The anonymous sniping we're now reading doesn't seem to contradict either of those fundamental points.
(3) As Ed Morrissey points out in his excellent piece on this issue today, the Times story offers a direct response to the passage in the Post article regarding the Mueller team's ready-made introductory paragraphs, which some sources are saying were specifically designed for fairly quick publication:
The special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials. Mr. Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation
I'll leave you with several crucial reminders, as some observers and analysts cling to the idea that Barr delivered a whitewash: We are going to see the redacted report, as we should, likely next week. If its contents depart wildly from Barr's framing, that will be hugely damaging Trump and Barr. The respected Attorney General has no incentive to distort the truth here, especially knowing that he'll be testifying about this entire process publicly and under oath, which he's proactively offered to do. Furthermore, Mueller's team is working with the AG's office on the redaction process. This should reassure Barr skeptics who've sung Mueller's praises for two years. Finally, as I said on Fox earlier, if Barr truly did engage in propaganda to benefit Trump by mischaracterizing (his close friend) Robert Mueller's bottom line determinations, Mueller would almost certainly have spoken out about it (as he did when other profoundly misleading information was reported). Either that, or the resulting leaks to newspapers like the Times and the Post would be much more substantive and pointed than what we saw last night:
In case you missed it, here's the DOJ's strong response to the Times and Post stories.