How Barr’s Mueller memo sparks distrust

Decades after the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person responsible for assassinating President John F. Kennedy, a majority of Americans rejected their finding, believing there was a conspiracy. Attorney General Bill Barr followed a path that’s likely to make responses to the Mueller report at least as distrusting.

Why? No matter what the Mueller report says, distrust will bloom because of how Barr got the job, what Barr initially said about the Mueller report and how he’s handling its eventual, partial release. Barr also clearly put his thumb on the scale in deciding not to prosecute President Donald Trump for obstruction.

Attorney General William Barr told Congress on March 29, to expect version of special counsel’s Russia report by mid-April. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Barr became attorney general after writing a 19-page letter to the Department of Justice saying a president could thwart an investigation with a pardon, a firing, a hiring or an instruction to prosecutors, and it wouldn’t be obstruction of justice. Not only could presidents act in ways inimical to most people’s views of the rule of law, but it was a qualification for Barr being selected by Trump. This contributes to Barr looking like a partisan.

Then, in releasing his four-page letter about the Mueller report, Barr gave limited information to the public. Instead of waiting to release the report or developing a longer analysis of an investigation that lasted 22 months, Barr put out his letter in two days. Barr’s communication not only included fewer than 100 words from the hundreds of pages in the Mueller report, but there wasn’t a single full sentence quoted.

The specifics of Barr’s letter on the Mueller report on conspiracy and collusion raise other questions.

After Barr reiterated that Russians sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election to assist Trump and summarized the two criminal conspiracies with which Russia was involved, he stated that “evidence did not establish” that the Trump campaign conspired or colluded. As attorney Victoria Bassetti, who oversaw the Senate’s impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, notes, this phrase “suggests that there was in fact some proof — just not enough to establish criminal wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt. We do not know how much evidence Mueller uncovered, but his wording intimates more than the bare minimum.“

We don’t know what evidence there is because Barr hasn’t cleared the Mueller report for release. And when it is released, it will be redacted. Some redactions are warranted because of national security reasons, but Barr says there will be additional omissions.

Finally, Barr seems less than fully trustworthy because of his decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice when, according to Barr’s own admission, Mueller “did not exonerate” the president on those grounds.

It’s hard to believe any Republican would accept this if Democrats were involved.

In contributing to distrust about this matter, Trump and his strongest supporters also have a role, with their over-the-top claims that the Mueller report, which they’ve not read, completely exonerated him. Some Trump backers even claim it was traitorous to investigate the president.

Americans do not agree. In an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll, only 29 percent think the Mueller report clears Trump of wrongdoing and a Washington Post poll found that only 32 percent think there has been “a complete exoneration.” And Americans want the report released.

Indeed, it’s essential to see the report’s evidence and logic regarding obstruction of justice and actions involving people loosely in the Trump orbit and activities involving non-Russian actors and possible quid pro quos; these include Roger Stone’s efforts with Wikileaks and Paul Manafort’s involvement with Russian associate Konstantin Kilimnik. Further trials, sentencing and possible indictments will round out the picture.

Congress has a constitutional obligation to ensure we see the report, minus the fewest redactions possible.

Thirty years ago a counsel to the Warren Commission wrote that a lack of public hearings on the Kennedy assassination, as well as Chief Justice Earl Warren’s decision to seal autopsy and medical records, undermined trust in the Warren Commission. In our more polarized time, transparency on the Mueller investigation is even more essential.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.