William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

AG Barr’s latest plan accused of ‘stinking to high heaven’

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/17/19, 9:00 PM ET

Barr books preemptive press conference amid report release uproar

Rachel Maddow reports on the bizarre series of events in the lead up to Thursday’s release of William Barr’s redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report, with Barr announcing a press conference for before the report’s release.
At this point yesterday, the road ahead seemed relatively clear. Attorney General Bill Barr’s office would release a redacted version this morning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, shedding new light on the Russia scandal, while the congressional fight to obtain a complete version of the document continued.

But by early evening, the landscape grew considerably more complex. The attorney general announced plans, for example, for a morning press conference, to be held hours before the release of Mueller’s findings. We also learned that neither the special counsel himself nor anyone from his team would be available – just Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Complicating matters, the Justice Department told a federal court yesterday that Barr intended to make a different version of the Mueller report – with fewer redactions – available to a select group of congressional lawmakers. There was, however, a catch: they wouldn’t be able to take a copy with them, and the attorney general’s office hadn’t mentioned any of this to key members.

The New York Times then took the controversy in an even more startling direction.

Justice Department officials have had numerous conversations with White House lawyers about the conclusions made by Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, in recent days, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The talks have aided the president’s legal team as it prepares a rebuttal to the report and strategizes for the coming public war over its findings.

So, the president faced accusations of criminal misconduct, and the Justice Department thought it’d be a good idea to give the president’s team private, undisclosed briefings on the investigation into that alleged misconduct, letting them know about the findings before anyone else?

On last night’s show, Rachel spoke with Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general who wrote the Justice Department’s regulations that define the office of the special counsel. He explained that he’s never heard of a situation in which the Justice Department provided a special briefing for the subject of an investigation, calling it a “breach of precedent” and a “breach of common sense.”

Katyal added that all of this “stinks to high heaven.”

Last week, as questions about the attorney general’s handling of the case grew louder, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Colo.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, praised Barr’s conduct, telling Fox News that Donald Trump’s handpicked AG has done everything “by the book.”

I’m curious: exactly which book would that be? Barr, who’s only been the president’s attorney general for two months, has spent a significant chunk of his limited tenure making up a process as he goes along. It’s a process that’s included writing misleading summaries, denying they’re summaries, endorsing strange conspiracy theories, and by some accounts, deliberately sitting on summaries that Mueller and his team intended to be disclosed to the public.

In 90 minutes, Barr will stand before reporters to answer questions about a report he hasn’t shown anyone – except his pals in the White House, who are the only folks who probably shouldn’t have had undisclosed briefings on the special counsel’s findings.

If the attorney general intended to undermine public confidence in his credibility and political independence, he’s doing an extraordinary job.

Justice Department, Scandals and White House

AG Barr's latest plan accused of 'stinking to high heaven'