Even the timing of the Mueller report’s release Thursday couldn’t escape the relentless partisan whirlwind surrounding the special counsel investigation, which for two years battered the presidency of Donald Trump, rattled the reputation of the Justice Department and shaped political discourse.
But Washington and the political world paused for about 25 minutes Thursday morning, as Attorney General William Barr stood before a few dozen news reporters and a spattering of television and still cameras at the Justice Department.
Barr insisted that he give his framing and general overview of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, even before lawmakers, journalists and the public had a chance to read it — and defended his decision to give White House lawyers a chance to read the redacted report before members of Congress.
Watch: Barr on Mueller report ahead of release — ‘No collusion’
First, the attorney general spent about 10 minutes outlining Russian efforts to influence the election and said the investigation “confirmed” that “no collusion” occurred between those efforts and members of the Trump campaign.
Barr described little about what the report states about information uncovered: whether Trump had committed a crime of obstruction of justice, or why Mueller did not make a decision about whether the president should be indicted.
“I leave it to his description in the report,” Barr said when asked.
Mueller did not intend to leave to Congress the decision about whether obstruction of justice charges were warranted, he later added.
Instead, Barr described why he concluded Trump’s actions did not rise to that level. 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,” the attorney general said.
Yet Trump took no act that deprived Mueller of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation, Barr said.
“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” he said.
The scene will endure as the first images of what will be hours, days and weeks of political spin, analysis and discussion about what’s in those forthcoming hundreds of pages — and what’s not — that is certain to be a waypoint for the country that is pivoting to the 2020 presidential election.
The report and Barr’s handling of the release will also cast long shadows on the public perception of Trump, the Justice Department and the attorney general’s reputation.
It could prompt the Russia-related tempest to finally start to subside, or grow to new intensities after Democratic lawmakers get a chance to scrutinize the report, file subpoenas or lawsuits to see what was redacted or contemplate impeachment proceedings.
Barr said there were redactions of a “limited nature” to the hundreds of pages of the report — which has long been the subject of uncountable speeches, speculation, tweets and news stories. It ranks among the most highly anticipated releases of a government document in American history.
Democrats criticized Barr for holding the press conference before making the report available, calling it a way to shape the public perception of what it contains. They called on Barr to cancel it after they learned that DOJ officials had given the president’s legal team briefings and a head start on rebutting the report. They insisted that Mueller himself — who did not attend the press conference — must testify publicly. Barr said he did not object to Mueller testifying, adding that he was committed to working with Congress to accommodate oversight requests.
“We will make available to a bipartisan group of leaders from several congressional committees a version of the report with all redactions removed except those relating to grand jury information,” Barr said. “Thus, these members of Congress will be able to see all of the redacted material for themselves, with the limited exception of that which, by law, cannot be shared.”