Some on Mueller's team see their findings as more damaging for Trump than A-G Barr revealed

Members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 presidential election are reportedly unhappy with how US Attorney General William Barr has presented the findings, according to multiple reports.
Attorney General William Barr has shown hints of frustration with how the rollout of the special counsel’s chief findings has unfolded.
Attorney General William Barr has shown hints of frustration with how the rollout of the special counsel’s chief findings has unfolded.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Some of Robert Mueller's investigators have told associates that United States Attorney-General William Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Donald Trump than Mr Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

At stake in the dispute - the first evidence of tension between Mr Barr and the special counsel's office - is who shapes the public's initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history.

Some members of Mr Mueller's team are concerned that because Mr Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel's findings, Americans' views will have hardened before the investigation's conclusions become public.

Mr Barr has said he would move quickly to release the nearly 400-page report but needed time to scrub out confidential information. The special counsel's investigators had already written multiple summaries of the report, and some team members believe that Mr Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page letter he wrote on March 24 laying out their main conclusions, according to government officials familiar with the investigation. Mr Barr only briefly cited the special counsel's work in his letter.

However, the special counsel's office never asked Mr Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.

Mr Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation, according to two government officials familiar with Mr Barr's thinking. They pointed to the decision by former FBI director James B. Comey to harshly criticise Mrs Hillary Clinton in 2016 while announcing that he was recommending no charges in the inquiry into her e-mail practices.

The officials and others interviewed declined to flesh out why some of the special counsel's investigators viewed their findings as potentially more damaging for the President than Mr Barr explained, although the report is believed to examine Mr Trump's efforts to thwart the investigation.

It was unclear how much discussion Mr Mueller and his investigators had with senior Justice Department officials about how their findings would be made public. It was also unclear how widespread the vexation is among the special counsel team, which included 19 lawyers, about 40 FBI agents and other personnel.

At the same time, Mr Barr and his advisers have expressed their own frustrations about Mr Mueller and his team.

Mr Barr and other Justice Department officials believe the special counsel's investigators fell short of their task by declining to decide whether Mr Trump illegally obstructed the inquiry, according to the two government officials. After Mr Mueller made no judgment on the obstruction matter, Mr Barr stepped in to declare that he had cleared Mr Trump of wrongdoing.

 
 
 

Representatives for the Justice Department and the special counsel declined to comment on Wednesday (April 3) on views inside both Mr Mueller's office and the Justice Department.

They pointed to departmental regulations requiring Mr Mueller to file a confidential report to the Attorney-General detailing prosecution decisions and to Mr Barr's separate vow to send a redacted version of that report to Congress. Under the regulations, Mr Barr can publicly release as much of the document as he deems appropriate.

A debate over how the special counsel's conclusions are represented has played out in public as well in recent weeks, with Democrats in Congress accusing Mr Barr of intervening to colour the outcome of the investigation in the President's favour.

In his letter to Congress outlining the report's chief conclusions, Mr Barr said that Mr Mueller found no conspiracy between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia's 2016 election interference. While Mr Mueller made no decision on his other main question, whether the President illegally obstructed the inquiry, he explicitly stopped short of exonerating Mr Trump.

Mr Mueller's decision to skip a prosecutorial judgment "leaves it to the Attorney-General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime", Mr Barr wrote. He and his deputy, Mr Rod J. Rosenstein, decided that the evidence was insufficient to conclude that Mr Trump had committed an obstruction offence.

Mr Barr has come under criticism for sharing so little. But according to officials familiar with the Attorney-General's thinking, he and his aides limited the details they revealed because they were worried about wading into political territory. Mr Barr and his advisers expressed concern that if they included derogatory information about Mr Trump while clearing him, they would face a storm of criticism like what Mr Comey endured in the Clinton investigation.

Legal experts attacked Mr Comey at the time for violating Justice Department practice to keep confidential any negative information about anyone uncovered during investigations. The practice exists to keep from unfairly sullying people's reputations without giving them a chance to respond in court.

Mr Rosenstein cited the handling of the Clinton case in a memo the White House used to rationalise Mr Trump's firing of Mr Comey.

Though it was not clear what findings the special counsel's investigators viewed as troubling for Mr Trump, Mr Barr has suggested that Mr Mueller may have found evidence of malfeasance in investigating possible obstruction of justice. "The report sets out evidence on both sides of the question," Mr Barr wrote in his March 24 letter.

 
 

Mr Mueller examined Mr Trump's attempts to maintain control over the investigation, including his firing of Mr Comey and his attempt to oust Mr Mueller and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to install a loyalist to oversee the inquiry.

The fallout from Mr Barr's letter outlining the Russia investigation's main findings overshadowed his intent to make public as much of the entire report as possible, a goal he has stressed since his confirmation hearing in January.

He reiterated to lawmakers on Friday that he wanted both Congress and the public to read the report and said that the department would furnish a version with sensitive material blacked out by mid-April. He offered to testify on Capitol Hill soon after turning over the report.

Mr Barr's promises of transparency have done little to appease Democrats who control the House. The House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to let its chairman use a subpoena to try to compel Mr Barr to hand over a full copy of the Mueller report and its underlying evidence to Congress. The chairman, Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler, has not said when he will use the subpoena, but made clear on Wednesday that he did not trust Mr Barr's characterisation of what Mr Mueller's team found.

"The Constitution charges Congress with holding the President accountable for alleged official misconduct," Mr Nadler said. "That job requires us to evaluate the evidence for ourselves - not the Attorney-General's summary, not a substantially redacted synopsis, but the full report and the underlying evidence."

Republicans, who have embraced Mr Barr's letter clearing Mr Trump, have accused the Democrats of trying to prolong the cloud over his presidency and urged them to move on.

Mr Trump has fully embraced Mr Barr's version of events. For days, he has pronounced the outcome of the investigation a "complete and total exoneration" and called for the Justice Department and his allies on Capitol Hill to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for opening the inquiry.