A federal judge yesterday criticized Attorney General William Barr's "misleading public statements" about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, said Barr's "lack of candor" makes it impossible to trust his claim that the redactions in the publicly released version of the March 2019 report were legally justified. Walton concluded that he needs to review the unredacted report before ruling on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by BuzzFeed and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which want to see the full report.
Walton's assessment of Barr's credibility echoes complaints by the president's critics that the attorney general, by trying to shape the public's impression of Mueller's findings, acted like Trump's personal lawyer rather than the federal government's chief law enforcement official. Like Barr's intervention in the sentencing of Roger Stone, his damage control in connection with the Mueller report seems to contradict his self-portrayal as a straight shooter committed to the rule of law above all.
"The Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report," Walton wrote in his opinion. "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."
If so, Walton said, it is plausible to suggest that the Justice Department's redactions may have been influenced by Barr's pro-Trump spin. "These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr's lack of candor specifically," he wrote, "call into question Attorney General Barr's credibility and in turn, the Department's representation" that the redacted information "is protected from disclosure by its claimed FOIA exemptions."
In Walton's view, "Attorney General Barr's representation that the Mueller Report would be 'subject only to those redactions required by law or by compelling law enforcement, national security, or personal privacy interests' cannot be credited without the Court's independent verification in light of Attorney General Barr's conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report." He added that "it would be disingenuous for the Court to conclude that the redactions of the Mueller Report pursuant to the FOIA are not tainted by Attorney General Barr's actions and representations."
Walton questioned Barr's decision to publicly summarize Mueller's conclusions on March 24, 2019, nearly a month before the redacted report was published. In a four-page letter to Congress that was made available to the public, Barr said "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," which included social media activity and hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. And although Mueller pointedly chose not to say whether Trump had illegally obstructed the Russia investigation, Barr concluded that "the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense."
As Walton noted, Mueller himself objected to Barr's summary of the report. "The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office's work and conclusions," Mueller said in a March 27 letter to Barr. "We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations."
While Mueller did not specify the nature of that "public confusion," Walton cited several ways in which Barr's summary was misleading. "Attorney General Barr distorted the findings in the Mueller Report," he wrote.
Specifically, Barr did not mention that Mueller "identified multiple contacts—'links,' in the words of the Appointment Order—between Trump [c]ampaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government." Nor did he note that Mueller's conclusions about "coordination" were based on a narrow definition of the term, drawn from conspiracy law, requiring "an agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump [c]ampaign and the Russian government on election interference," as opposed to merely "two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other's actions or interests." While Mueller's definition was appropriate in determining whether campaign officials had done anything illegal, Barr's general denial that the campaign "coordinated" with Russia may have left the mistaken impression that there were no contacts or that Russia's assistance was unwelcome.
Walton also noted that Barr "failed to disclose to the American public" that Mueller did not reach a conclusion regarding obstruction because he accepted the Office of Legal Counsel's position that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Yet Mueller strongly implied that the evidence of obstruction was more substantial than the evidence of an illegal conspiracy with Russia.
"If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state," the report said. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
Walton also expressed concern about Barr's remarks at a press conference on April 18, 2019, the day the redacted report was finally published. Barr not only reiterated what he had said in his letter to Congress but emphasized that 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." The White House nevertheless "fully cooperated" with Mueller's investigation, Barr said, and Trump "took no act" that "in fact deprived" Mueller of relevant documents and witnesses. The "evidence of non-corrupt motives," he said, "weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation."
In short, Walton suggests, Barr tried to persuade the public that Trump did nothing wrong and in fact was commendably patient and cooperative given the circumstances. According to the Mueller report, Trump "told advisors that he wanted an Attorney General who would protect him." In this case, Barr surely did not disappoint his boss.