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Editorial

Barr at center of Mueller report maelstrom

Barr speaks before Congress following criticism from Mueller
Attorney General William Barr spoke on Wednesday over his handling of the Russia investigation report. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, C-SPAN)

When the attorney general of the United States — the nation’s chief law enforcement officer — substitutes obfuscation for truth, then we are in unchartered territory indeed.

Not since Watergate have the political and legal waters in Washington been so turbulent — and Attorney General William Barr is now at the center of that maelstrom. Barr had already proved he was capable of political spin in defense of the president who appointed him. But there is a point at which “spin” becomes something more than that.

“He lied to Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday at a news conference. “And if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law. Not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general.”

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At issue was Barr’s testimony at an April 9 House committee hearing when Representative Charlie Crist, Democrat of Florida, asked him about published reports that members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team were frustrated at Barr’s characterization of their report’s conclusions. Barr insisted he didn’t know “what they’re referencing,” adding, “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out, but in my view, I was not interested in putting out summaries or trying to summarize.”

During his testimony Wednesday, Barr doubled down on his story saying, “Mueller had never told me that the expression of the findings was inaccurate.”

This is what Mueller actually said in his March 27 letter to Barr: “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. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. 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.”

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Barr during his congressional testimony Wednesday called Mueller’s letter “snitty.”

We’ll call it what it really is — the truth. And whether Barr liked the letter’s tone or not, he received it, and his claim to Congress that he didn’t know Mueller’s concerns was clearly false.

Barr also did his best first to obfuscate the findings of the report, to spin them to the advantage of a president who would then take the “total exoneration” ball and run with it. Then he delayed release of the redacted report and its executive summaries. We now know from Mueller’s letter that the delay was completely unnecessary.

In fact, Mueller had sent already redacted copies of the introductions and summaries of both volumes of the report to Barr on March 25. By March 27 he told the attorney general in that same letter that “the enclosed documents are in a form that can be released to the public,” adding, “I am requesting that you provide these materials to Congress and authorize their public release at this time.”

Barr ignored Mueller’s request, giving President Trump three more weeks to tweet lies and make speeches based on his own gross misrepresentations. Barr didn’t release the redacted report until April 18.

There is no happy face Barr can put on his intentional slow rollout of the report’s summaries, his repeated shading of the truth during his congressional testimony and, most of all, his decision to put the needs of the president he serves ahead of the needs of the nation he is also supposed to serve.

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Barr decided to dodge Thursday’s scheduled House Judiciary Committee hearing, where the committee had planned to have staff lawyers do the questioning — something a spokeswoman for the Justice Department called “unnecessary.”

Whether the issue was fear of perjury or mere prosecutorial petulance, Barr’s absence was certainly a disgrace. But it’s also a sideshow — a distraction from what should be the main event, and that’s an appearance by Mueller himself.

The nation has already had to endure more than a month of lies and intentional misinterpretation. If Congress wants to hear some straight talk for a change, it needs to hear directly from Mueller.