For Trump, 'complete and total exoneration' ain't what it used to be

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Nearly two weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Robert Mueller’s investigation of collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and possible obstruction of justice shook up the worldview of the entire political and journalistic establishment.

Barr’s four-page appraisal of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report was read as vindicating Trump of all wrongdoing, and set off euphoric celebrations on Fox News, among the president’s Republican loyalists in Congress and, of course, from the commander in chief himself.

Indeed, while Barr’s book report specifically noted that Mueller’s report “does not exonerate” the president, the upshot of the investigation was that Trump would be spared criminal prosecution. With the possible exception of Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs, no one crowed louder over the investigation’s apparent conclusions louder than Trump himself.

But as Barr set about considering which portions of the report were suitable for public view and which would be forever buried beneath a redacting tool’s bold black lines, cracks began appearing in the case-closed façade.

On Wednesday, members of Mueller’s hitherto tight-lipped team began to speak of their frustrations with Barr’s recounting of the special counsel’s findings. The New York Times reported that “some” Mueller investigators had concluded that “Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump” than the attorney general had let on.

Attorney General William Barr. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Barr’s underlings seemed to walk back the notion that the attorney general’s letter was an actual summary of the special counsel’s report, although no one in the office publicly disputed Trump’s characterization of the full report — which he apparently hasn’t read, either — as a complete vindication.

“Given the extraordinary public interest in the matter, the Attorney General decided to release the report’s bottom-line findings and his conclusions immediately — without attempting to summarize the report — with the understanding that the report itself would be released after the redaction process,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a Thursday statement.

Soon the Washington Post, NBC News and CNN had all matched the Times’s reporting, contacting sources on Mueller’s team, but to Trump it was all fake news.

Not only did the Times stand by its reporting, but their story (as well as those of their competitors) turned up the heat on Barr to make the full report public. Even before the revelations of discord at the Justice Department over Barr’s non-summary, the public wasn’t buying the president’s spin on it. A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last Friday found that 75 percent of Americans think the full report should be made public and just 36 percent said the report cleared Trump of any wrongdoing.

Democrats pounced.

“You have already provided an interpretation of the Special Counsel’s conclusions in a fashion that appeared to minimize the implications of the report as to the President,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler wrote to Barr on Thursday. “Releasing the summaries — without delay — would begin to allow the American people to judge the facts for themselves.”

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Nadler is also preparing to subpoena the Justice Department for the full report and said Thursday that it would “very likely be necessary” for Mueller to testify before his committee.

It may indeed fall to Mueller to clear up the discrepancy between the interpretations of Barr and what members of his team have leaked to the media. Before the release of Barr’s shorthand of the full report, Trump stated he had no objections to Mueller’s findings being made public. “It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Trump asserted one day after Barr’s condensed “CliffsNotes” version arrived. But this week, the president backed away from that idea.

It may well be true the Democrats in Congress will not be satisfied with another condensing of Mueller’s pages. As Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cailf., put it in a tweet last week, Barr’s motives remain suspect for many in the party.

Schiff, now a prime target for his Republican colleagues and the president, was referencing Barr’s 2018 memo to Justice Department officials, which portrayed Mueller’s report as “fatally misconceived” and “legally unsupportable.” That memo came six months before Trump nominated him to serve as attorney general, and has been credited with helping him secure the position. In essence, it too was a preview summary of Mueller’s report, before it had even been written.

In summary, the president and his team may well fight to keep the full report from ever seeing the light of day, but every day that they do, Trump’s claim of “complete and total exoneration” will seem less persuasive.

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