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Mueller's letter suggests AG Barr has some explaining to do

We knew that Bill Barr's assessment of the Mueller report was misleading. What we didn't know is what Robert Mueller was telling Barr behind the scenes.
Image: Senate Judiciary Committee
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. ...

On March 22, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his full report on the Russia scandal investigation to the Justice Department, and on March 24, Attorney General Bill Barr released a four-page characterization of Mueller's findings. It immediately jolted the political world, painting a rather flattering picture for Donald Trump, which the White House quickly celebrated.

The president's Republican allies soon followed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested he wasn't even eager to read the actual Mueller report, in part because his trust in Barr was so complete, and in part because he didn't share Democrats' "paranoia" surrounding the controversy.

As regular readers know, this was not an uncommon perspective. After the attorney general's original summary, even many in the media acted as if the entire scandal had instantly evaporated. Barr had cleared Trump, and it was incumbent upon all of us to simply accept that as fact.

Storm clouds, however, soon hovered. Frustrated investigators on the special counsel's team leaked word that Barr's political efforts were misleading. Once the Mueller report itself was released, it became clear that the attorney general had, in fact, taken some liberties when describing the original source material with the public and Congress.

But last night, the story took an even more serious turn when we learned that Mueller himself made his dissatisfaction clear to Barr directly. The Washington Post was first to report:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrote a letter in late March complaining to Attorney General William P. Barr that a four-page memo to Congress describing the principal conclusions of the investigation into President Trump "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of Mueller's work, according to a copy of the letter reviewed Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The New York Times and NBC News ran similar reports, with NBC News' Pete Williams adding that Mueller didn't just write a letter to Barr, complaining about his efforts, but the two also had a phone conversation on the matter. [Update: the full text of the letter is now available.]

In terms of the timeline, note that the special counsel's letter was dated March 27 -- three days after the attorney general's four-page assessment was released, in the midst of Trump's "victory lap," during which he claimed he'd been "totally vindicated."

More from the Post's article:

At the time Mueller's letter was sent to Barr on March 27, Barr had days prior announced that Mueller did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian officials seeking to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In his memo to Congress, Barr also said that Mueller had not reached a conclusion about whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice, but that Barr reviewed the evidence and found it insufficient to support such a charge.Days after Barr's announcement, Mueller wrote the previously undisclosed private letter to the Justice Department, laying out his concerns in stark terms that shocked senior Justice Department officials, according to people familiar with the discussions.

While we haven't yet seen the full document, the fact that Mueller's concerns "shocked senior Justice Department officials" suggests the special counsel was not at all pleased with Barr's antics, and said so in stark terms.

"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's letter read in part. "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."

As Rachel emphasized on the show last night, it's important to remember that Mueller prepared executive summaries with minimal redactions, apparently in the hopes that they would be shared with lawmakers and the public. Bill Barr, however, released only his own misleading characterizations of the investigation's findings.

All of which is to say, the attorney general has some explaining to do.

He'll soon have that chance. Barr is scheduled to appear before the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee today, and while he's also supposed to testify before the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee tomorrow, those plans remain unsettled. The majority leadership of the panel want to use a staff attorney to question Barr, and the attorney general in recent days has objected to the format, despite the fact that it's been used several times in years past.

Watch this space.