A Major Collision Between the Attorney General and the Special Counsel

During his testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General William Barr made it very clear that he did not want to talk about the letter Special Counsel Robert Mueller had written to him on March 27th. Over and over again, when the topic came up, he diverted to the phone call he had with Mueller the next day, claiming that the special counsel assured him that his summary was not inaccurate, but that the news coverage was the problem.

When asked to relay the specifics of what transpired during that phone call, Barr said that he began the conversation by saying, “Bob, what’s with the letter? Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?” Under questioning by Senator Blumenthal, Barr said that there were several people from his office present during the phone call on March 28th, and that someone took notes.

There is a reason why Barr doesn’t want to share the notes taken during that phone call. It’s because his version of what transpired strains credulity.

The attorney general had been aware of the issues Mueller had with his handling of the report for quite some time, so it would be absurd for him to have started that phone call with any degree of ignorance about them. Based on the March 27th letter from the special counsel, here’s a timeline of how those concerns were communicated to the attorney general.

March 5 – In a meeting with the attorney general, Mueller explained that the introductions and executive summaries of their report accurately summarize their work and conclusions.

March 22 – Mueller delivered the report to the attorney general.

Early afternoon March 24 – The special counsel reiterated that the introduction and executive summaries accurately summarized the report.

Late afternoon March 24 – Barr released his own summary, to which Trump and his enablers responded by claiming that the president had been “totally exonerated.”

Morning March 25 – The special counsel communicated their concerns to the department that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”

Mueller also referenced another letter he had written to Barr on March 25th that included copies of the introductions and summaries, complete with any necessary redactions. By the time of the phone call on March 28th, Mueller had communicated with Barr at least five times, asking him to release those documents in order to avoid the kind of public confusion that resulted from the attorney general’s mischaracterizations.

By April 3rd, members of the special counsel’s team (we don’t know if Mueller himself was involved) had become so frustrated with the confusion generated by Barr’s four-page letter and his obvious unwillingness to release their summaries, that they took their concerns to the media. When asked by reporters from the New York Times for a response, Barr’s office lied.

[T]he special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.

That is why on Tuesday, the day before Barr was to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, someone leaked Mueller’s March 27th letter to the media. Under questioning about why he didn’t mention Mueller’s letter during previous testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on April 4th, Barr tried to suggest that the concerns expressed by members of the special counsel’s team were somehow different than those he had heard from Mueller on five different occasions. That left Senator Whitehouse practically speechless.

To get back to Barr’s supposed question to Mueller: “what’s with the letter,” it is helpful to understand some things about the culture at DOJ.

The fact that Robert Mueller “went to paper” tells us that what we are witnessing is a major collision between the attorney general and the special counsel.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.