It's mystifying that we are still arguing over this, but the media has been breathlessly hyping a recently-released decision by a federal judge that reinforces the liberal conventional wisdom that Attorney General William Barr scandalously mishandled the Mueller report, in an effort to spin a politically-damaging story in President Trump's favor. It's nonsense. The judge, a Republican appointee, is widely regarded as thorough and serious. I accept that. But even thorough and serious people can miss the mark. And in my opinion, he has it dead wrong on this issue. Let's start with the ruling -- which strikes me as more of a political opinion than a definitive legal judgment:
A federal judge excoriated Attorney General Bill Barr on Thursday for distorting the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In a stinging 23-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton said Barr’s efforts to spin the report before its public release last year raised serious doubts about whether the Justice Department faithfully applied the law when deleting certain information from the publicly disclosed version...“The Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report,” wrote Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush. "The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary,” the judge added.
This view is widely shared in media and Democratic circles -- which heavily overlap, of course -- but is unsupported by the facts, in my estimation. Let's review: The Russia matter had hung over the American political process, and the Trump presidency, since 2016. Finally, in March of 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team concluded an exhaustive probe into how the Russians interfered in the previous presidential election, including the explosive question of whether they coordinated their efforts with the Trump campaign. The resulting report was transmitted to the Attorney General, who knew that a lengthy redaction process would delay the document's public release for a significant period of time. As the DOJ coordinated with Mueller's team on that task (this is a key point, undercutting the Judge Walton's overwrought concerns about the validity of the redactions), Barr chose to publish a short summary of the Mueller's reports top line findings. Here's how I described them last April:
"...Attorney General Barr's original summary letter hit the nail on the head: The Russian government inarguably interfered in the 2016 US election, no coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign (or any Americans) on these efforts has been established, and the Special Counsel's office declined to come down one way or another on the secondary question of obstruction of justice.
Barr made it a point to note that his short memo was not intended to be a comprehensive summary of the entire report (which was quite unflattering to Trump in a number of ways, even as it vindicated him on the central question of collusion), but rather a snapshot of its bottom line results. Barr wrote that Mueller found no evidence collusion -- indignant parsing about that specific word was destroyed by the report itself, of which the Special Counsel himself needed to be reminded -- and after laying out some evidence on both sides of the ledger, he conveyed that the Special Counsel had decided not to reach a definitive verdict on obstruction. This was not deceitful; it was accurate. Even Mueller conceded this point. One can question whether the 'top line summary' letter to Congress was a wiser course of action than sitting on the report for weeks while redactions were being made, which would surely have spawned all sorts of wild conspiracies. The DOJ was therefore justified and correct to push back against Walton's assessment:
Justice Department spokeswoman responds to Judge Walton's accusation that AG Barr misled public ('lack of candor') about Mueller Report. Judge's assertions, spox says, were 'contrary to the facts.' pic.twitter.com/VUwPFAMpIK— Byron York (@ByronYork) March 7, 2020
Agreed. It strikes me as tendentious to conclude that Barr's decision was wildly inappropriate or partisan. It must also be strenuously emphasized that (a) Mueller was permitted to complete his investigation with every resource he requested and with zero interference, and (b) no matter what one thinks of Barr's memo, he released the entire Mueller report in relatively short order, with minimal redactions -- which, again, were made in conjunction with Mueller's team. Judge Walton may not personally be suffering from Barr derangement, but many in Washington are, and his judicial op/ed will fuel further irrational histrionics. Most Americans have long since moved on from the Russia panic, as the most sensational and endlessly-repeated accusation against Team Trump fizzled out. Indeed, most Americans are over the Ukraine-based impeachment saga, which wrapped up roughly a month ago. But the truth still matters, and unfair, partisan sniping must be met with facts and logic. I'll leave you with additional bullet holes in the endless hyperventilatory theory that Barr is a single-minded, unethical partisan hatchet man determined to do the president's bidding:
(1) In a rare intra-administration rebuke, Barr publicly and pointedly criticized President Trump's political tweets about active DOJ cases.
(2) Barr's Justice Department decided not to prosecute James Comey or Andrew McCabe, despite clear misconduct and the president's very obvious point of view on both charged cases.
(3) In spite of a media tempest over the DOJ's handling of a sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, the judge in the case -- after all the acrimony and noise -- ended up adopting Barr's position on the matter.
Some political narratives die hard, no matter what a dispassionate review of the evidence may demonstrate.