It was only a month ago that many Democrats were hoping Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election would lead to indictments — perhaps even of President Donald Trump’s family and inner circle — for conspiring with the Russians. That did not come to pass, nor will it, so the focus has turned to “the narrative.” The term itself is a sign that this story is now entirely about politics.
The narrative is what the latest scandal regarding Attorney General William Barr is all about: How he summarized Mueller’s report, who he talked to about it, when he released it. Yet there is no disagreement about the central facts of the investigation: It found no conspiracy, and while it did find many possible instances of obstruction of justice, it did not recommend prosecution.
In his March 24 letter to Congress, Barr provided lawmakers and the public with his two “principal conclusions” of Mueller’s report. Three days later, Mueller wrote to Barr that his letter “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of his team’s work. Mueller asked Barr to release summaries he had earlier provided to the Justice Department.
Barr declined. As he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Mueller’s report became “my baby” after the special counsel sent it to him. He also said he did not want to release the redacted report to the public piecemeal.
Had Barr taken the next two years to comb through Mueller’s report to determine what information should be redacted, Democrats would have a point. But that’s not what happened. On April 18, the public and Congress got a chance to read Mueller’s report, with only about 10 percent of it redacted.
Yes, the full report is more damning to the president than the conclusions shared in Barr’s letter. It describes sordid scenes where the president asks subordinates to lie. It says Mr. Trump had advance notice of the WikiLeaks disclosure of emails stolen by Russian hackers. It shows how his campaign built up a communications strategy around those stolen emails.
As Barr’s letter said, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” As my colleague Noah Feldman has noted, Barr was only following Justice Department regulations when he issued his letter. He was not violating any procedures or rules.
Some Democrats have said Barr lied to Congress when he told the House that he did not know why Mueller’s investigators were perturbed about his March 24 letter. But on Wednesday Barr had a plausible, if slippery, answer: He was asked about Mueller’s staff, he said, and Mueller himself had told him in a phone call that he did not believe his letter was inaccurate. Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would be asking Mueller if Barr accurately described their phone conversation.
So what are Democrats so upset about? Is it that they lost a precious 25 days — from March 24 to April 18 — to spin Mueller’s findings to their liking? This is worse than Watergate! They will never get those news cycles back.
This complaint is not only picayune but also hypocritical. Since Trump won the 2016 election, the narrative (that word again) that he might be a Russian asset or may have conspired with Russia has been a near article of faith for the resistance. If Democrats can chastise Barr for spinning Mueller’s report for 24 days, then why can’t Republicans ask why Mueller didn’t end all the speculation about a Trump-Russia conspiracy as soon as he found out it wasn’t true?
None of this is to say that Mueller’s report makes the president or his campaign look good. It doesn’t, despite Trump’s own narrative about it. A version of the report was always going to be made public, but it was by no means assured it would be so prompt or detailed. The only reason the public — and, not incidentally, members of Congress — know those details is because William Barr released the report with few redactions a little more than one month after the Justice Department received it.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.