While Donald Trump may have been surprised to learn that William Barr and special counsel Robert Mueller are longtime acquaintances, that hasn’t stopped Trump’s attorney general nominee from making statements that are very worrisome to anyone ever expecting to see a final report on the Russia investigation. As former special counsel for the Department of Defense Ryan Goodman has noted, Barr has left several clues that he supports keeping chunks of any report under wraps, even if he is forced to eventually let some of the text fly free.
In his response to Senate questions, Barr has made it clear that he regards any report emerging from the investigation a “confidential document.” Further, while he makes a wave toward “the interest of the public in being informed,” he immediately retreats behind the “reporting requirements” under law, which are no real requirements at all—allowing the report to be withheld if the attorney general either doesn’t feel that releasing it would be in the public interest or if it fails to “comply with applicable legal restrictions.”
As Goodman points out, Barr is describing his response to any report from Mueller as if the document were strictly an internal report of a criminal proceeding, which it is. However, that’s not all that it is. Mueller’s team may be investigating and indicting crimes, but it is also a counterintelligence effort, and that is a public effort. Treating the entire Trump-Russia investigation as if it were any other criminal proceeding is deceptive, both in scope and impact.
But it is also convenient, because it allows Barr to say that the attorney general “must” notify the chairmen of the appropriate House and Senate committees on completion of the investigation. But when it comes to providing the results of the investigation, must becomes “may.”
In particular, Barr expresses concern about protecting the “interests of uncharged third parties.” As in unindicted co-conspirators. As in Donald Trump.
The understanding that Barr is feeding back to senators may sound good, full as it is of reassurances that officials will be informed of some parts of the investigation. But any reading of Barr’s words makes it clear that in treating the entire investigation as a criminal proceeding, and taking a strict view of releasing any information related to unindicted individuals addressed in the investigation, he’s making dead certain that Donald Trump will not appear in any report released to the public. Going beyond that, Barr also cites Department of Justice policy “not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution”
- Barr previously sent an unsolicited letter to the Justice Department saying that he didn’t believe Donald Trump could be charged with obstruction for anything related to firing James Comey.
- In his testimony, Barr has made it clear that he believes that a sitting executive cannot be indicted, and that any charges would have to wait until his term was over.
- And he’s made it clear that the attorney general can modify or withhold any part of a special counsel’s report that mentions someone who is not indicted, or levels criticism at someone who isn’t under indictment.
Put those things together and what Bill Barr is saying is not that he might hide any part of the Mueller report that deals with Donald Trump. He’s saying that he will hide anything the report has to say about Donald Trump—even if what it has to say is filled with conspiracy, obstruction, and crimes of all descriptions.