The most telling moments in William Barr’s news conference this morning were when he dismissed or ignored questions about whether he was playing a partisan role.
The attorney general stuck to his planned description about the process of reviewing and releasing the Mueller report, knowing full well that his conduct was coming under media fire.
When ABC’s Pierre Thomas asked Barr about criticism that he was acting as President Trump’s lawyer rather than as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, Barr ducked by answering only the initial part of his question.
When another reporter asked why Robert Mueller wasn’t there, Barr dodged by saying that the special counsel was required to submit the report to him and he was using his discretion on how to release it.
The one part of the presser where it sounded like Barr was defending his boss was when he described the president’s frustration and anger at the probe as reflecting his “sincere belief” that he had done nothing wrong. When challenged by a reporter, Barr said he was merely reflecting the characterization of the Mueller report.
The AG went on to say that Trump had fully cooperated with the investigation, provided unfettered access to aides and documents and did not invoke executive privilege.
He did not mention that the president ultimately declined to be interviewed by Mueller. Barr also confirmed that he let the president’s personal lawyer read an advance copy of the report, depicting that as standard practice.
And when a reporter asked why he had made the determination that Trump had not obstructed justice, Barr said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who stood behind him, had discussed the matter with Mueller early last month. He said Mueller assured them that his decision not to make a recommendation on prosecution was not related to a department opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Barr provided a bit more detail about the report, saying it examines 10 episodes of possible obstruction by Trump. Barr said he disagreed with some of the legal theories cited by Mueller but did not elaborate.
And Barr sounded definitive on the report’s finding of no collusion, running through a list of Russian attempts at disinformation and hacking and saying no Americans, included anyone associated with the Trump campaign, had cooperated in those efforts.
In short, the attorney general provided fodder for both his supporters and his critics in how he handled the event.
By the time Barr appeared at the Justice Department podium, he had been utterly vilified—for the sin of showing up to answer reporters’ questions.
There was, to be sure, more to it than that. By making his public appearance before the Mueller report was released, the attorney general appeared to be engaging in a partisan maneuver. He was, it was said, trying to frame the narrative in a way that would help the man who appointed him.
But any attempt at spin would be short-lived at best, as journalists and members of Congress would see the anxiously awaited report about 90 minutes after the Barr presser.
Even before word leaked about the delayed release, which in my view was too cute by half, Barr was being savaged. The Washington lawyer who came into office highly respected—he had, after all, held the same job under George H.W. Bush—had shredded his credibility, according to the liberal indictment. Commentators at MSNBC were absolutely horrified that he would hold a news conference at all—and indeed, leading Democrats soon demanded that the AG cancel the session.
In other words, the pundits would be talking about Barr and his handling of the explosive report all day, but for him to publicly respond to questions was a bridge too far.
Sure, it would have been better to release the report first and make Barr available second. But the media uproar reflected the enormous anxiety in the runup to the report’s release, filled with days of speculation and advance conclusions about a document none of us had seen.
More concerning is a New York Times report that Justice Department officials had “numerous conversations with White House lawyers” about Mueller’s conclusions in recent days, helping the president’s legal team prepare its rebuttal report. And Trump was leading the prebuttal, tweeting early this morning that “The Greatest Political Hoax of all time! Crimes were committed by Crooked, Dirty Cops and DNC/The Democrats.”
And after the presser, the president tweeted a “Game of Thrones”-style graphic with the headline “Game Over.” Over, in his view, “for the haters and radical left Democrats.”
It’s a safe bet we’ll be hearing from the Democrats soon enough.