Five ways Trump’s attorney-general misled the public about the Mueller Report

Mueller didn't clear Trump of obstruction. He referred the matter to Congress. AG William Barr is spinning for the president.

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The way in which Attorney General William Barr – a Trump appointee who has previously criticised Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference – publicly characterised the report’s findings differs markedly from the actual content of the report, released to Congress and the American public on Thursday morning.

Here we outline the five key ways in which Barr’s spin on the report diverges from the actual contents of the document – with potentially huge political consequences.

1) What Attorney General William Barr said:

In his press conference hours ahead of the report’s release, Barr mentioned the word “collusion” four times, saying Mueller’s inquiry found no evidence that Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia.

What Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrote:

In his report, Mueller is emphatic that the focus of his investigation is not on “collusion”, a nebulous and non-legal term term, and instead is more narrowly focused on whether the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia.

The bar Mueller sets is high: coordination requires, “more than two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests,” he writes.

In particular, Mueller focused on whether there was sufficient evidence for three criminal charges: whether anyone on the Trump campaign was guilty of acting as an unregistered foreign agent, whether the links between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks (details of which are heavily redacted in the report) constituted a violation of campaign finance rules, or whether anyone could be charged with conspiracy.

He concludes that “the evidence was not sufficient for this”. That’s very different from “no collusion.”

2) What Barr said:

Despite documenting extensive efforts by the Russians to influence the 2016 elections, including by hacking Democratic targets and conducting “information warfare” online, Barr said in his press conference the Special Counsel “found no underlying collusion with Russia”.

What Mueller wrote:

Mueller emphasises that: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts”. Mueller did not prove that there was no underlying collusion with Russia. He only failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was. That’s something very different.

Mueller also points out that he was not able to gather all the information he wanted to: the investigation did not always yield admissible information, some key witnesses were overseas and unreachable, others lied to him or invoked the fifth amendment to avoid incriminating themselves, a number of key documents were deleted.

Again, Mueller emphatically did not establish that there was “no collusion”, instead he found insufficient evidence to charge anyone on the Trump campaign with conspiring or coordinating with Russia.

“The office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report,” Mueller writes.

That could be interpreted as a cautious prosecutor simply being transparent about the limitations of his investigation. Or it could be read as a warning that this report should not be read as a complete exoneration of the president, as Donald Trump insists it is.

It certainly does not align with Barr’s public portrayal of Mueller’s conclusions.

3) What Barr said:

Barr portrayed Trump’s White House as cooperating fully with the Special Counsel, even though the president had a legitimate grievance, Barr suggested, against an investigation that was “propelled by his opponents and fuelled by illegal leaks”.

“The White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation,” he said during the press conference.

What Mueller wrote:

“President Trump reacted negatively to the Special Counsel’s appointment. He told advisers that this was the end of his presidency, sought to have Attorney General Jefferson (Jeff) Sessions unrecuse from the Russia investigation and to have the Special Counsel removed, and engaged in efforts to curtail the Special Counsel’s investigation and prevent the disclosure of evidence to it, including through public and private contacts with potential witnesses.”

No matter how generously you interpret Barr’s comments, it’s hard to square this with his claim that the White House offered full cooperation.

4) What Barr said:

While Mueller declined to reach a conclusion on the obstruction of justice issue, Barr did, concluding that there was not enough evidence to establish that the president committed obstruction of justice.

He claimed that although he disagrees with Mueller’s legal theories regarding obstruction of justice, this is not why he reached this conclusion – arguing that he did so on the basis of the evidence provided in the report.

“Although the Deputy Attorney General and I disagreed with some of the Special Counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law, we did not rely solely on that in making our decision. Instead, we accepted the Special Counsel’s legal framework for purposes of our analysis and evaluated the evidence as presented by the Special Counsel in reaching our conclusion,” he said.

What Mueller wrote:

Mueller makes clear that the evidence certainly does not suggest that the president should be cleared of obstruction-of-justice charges. “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,” Mueller wrote. In fact, Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller and curtail his investigation, and various efforts to tamper with witnesses – either by intimidating them or by dangling the promise of a bargain – would by any stretch of the imagination meet the evidentiary standard required under normal circumstances to charge someone with obstruction.

Instead, Mueller’s concerns seem to be mostly constitutional, especially his clear concern that Congress, not he and the rest of the Department of Justice, which is part of the executive branch, should be the ones to make that legal call.

5) What Barr said:

Asked by a reporter if, in his view, Mueller intended for Barr to reach a conclusion on the obstruction of justice issue – rather than Congress – Barr says “I hope this was not his view”.

What Mueller wrote:

The report suggests strongly that in fact it was Mueller’s view that Congress should be left to reach a conclusion on the obstruction of justice issue.

Mueller notes that he followed the longstanding position of the Office of Legal Counsel, which argues that a sitting president cannot be indicted because it would “impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions”.

However, he also underlines that it is within Congress’s power to investigate obstruction of justice charges against the president, and presumably impeach him if he’s found guilty.

“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” he writes.