William Barr
William Barr Image Credit: AP

WASHINGTON: Robert Mueller, the special counsel, wrote a letter in late March to Attorney General William Barr objecting to his early description of the Russia investigation’s conclusions that appeared to clear President Donald Trump on possible obstruction of justice, according to the Justice Department and three people with direct knowledge of the communication between the two men.

The letter adds to the growing evidence of a rift between them and is another sign of the anger among the special counsel’s investigators about Barr’s characterization of their findings, which allowed Trump to wrongly claim he had been vindicated.

It was unclear what specific objections Mueller raised in his letter, though a Justice Department spokeswoman said Tuesday evening that he “expressed a frustration over the lack of context” in Barr’s presentation of his findings on obstruction of justice. Barr defended his descriptions of the investigation’s conclusions in conversations with Mueller over the days after he sent the letter, according to two people with knowledge of their discussions.

Barr, who was scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the investigation, has said publicly that he disagrees with some of the legal reasoning in the Mueller report. Senior Democratic lawmakers have invited Mueller to testify in the coming weeks but have been unable to secure a date for his testimony.

A central issue in the simmering dispute is how the public’s understanding of the Mueller report has been shaped since the special counsel ended his investigation and delivered his 448-page report March 22 to the attorney general, his boss and longtime friend. The four-page letter that Barr sent to Congress two days later gave little detail about the special counsel’s findings and created the impression that Mueller’s team found no wrongdoing, allowing Trump to declare he had been exonerated.

But when Mueller’s report was released April 18, it painted a far more damning picture of the president and showed that Mueller believed that significant evidence existed that Trump obstructed justice.

“The special counsel emphasized that nothing in the attorney general’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading,” a Justice Department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said in response to a request for comment made Tuesday afternoon. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.

Over the past month, other signs of friction between the attorney general and the special counsel have emerged over issues like legal theories about constitutional protections afforded to presidents to do their job and how Mueller’s team conducted the investigation.

A rift between the men appeared to develop in the intervening months as the special counsel wrapped up his inquiry.

The Justice Department received Mueller’s letter four days after Barr sent his conclusions to Congress. In response, the attorney general and the special counsel spoke on the phone, and Mueller laid out his concerns about the initial descriptions of the report.

At the time, the Justice Department had begun redacting the report, and Mueller raised the question about whether more of it could be released.

“The attorney general ultimately determined that it would not be productive to release the report in piecemeal fashion,” Kupec said. “The attorney general and the special counsel agreed to get the full report out with necessary redactions as expeditiously as possible.”

Barr and senior Justice Department officials were frustrated with how Mueller ended his investigation and drafted his report, according to the three people.

They expressed irritation that Mueller fell short of his assignment by declining to make a decision about whether Trump broke the law. That left Barr to clear Trump without the special counsel’s backing.

But Mueller did lay out evidence against the president. After explaining that he had declined to make a prosecutorial judgment, citing as a factor a Justice Department view that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, the special counsel detailed more than a dozen attempts by the president to impede the inquiry. He also left open the door for charges after Trump leaves office.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller and his investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

Mueller’s report, the attorney general and the other senior law enforcement officials believed, read like it had been written for consumption by Congress and the public, not like a confidential report to Barr, as required under the regulations governing the special counsel.

Some of the special counsel’s investigators have told associates that they were angry about Barr’s initial characterization of their findings, government officials and others have said, and that their conclusions were more troubling for Trump than Barr indicated in his four-page letter. That proved to be the case.

In once instance, Barr took Mueller’s words out of context to suggest that the president had no motive to obstruct justice. In another instance, he plucked a fragment from a sentence in the Mueller report that made a conclusion seem less damaging for Trump.

Despite the disagreement about the report, members of Mueller’s team worked alongside senior Justice Department officials to redact sensitive information from the report before it was released.

Hours before the public release of the Mueller report, Barr said during a news conference that he had “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories” about what constitutes presidential obstruction of justice. He also said repeatedly that the special counsel had found “no collusion” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Trump often uses the term, but Mueller’s investigators pointed out it had no legal standard and left it out of their judgments.

Instead, investigators wrote that they had not found evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians.

Barr also said during the news conference that some of Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation needed to be put in “context.”

“There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” he said.

— New York Times News Service