There was that Scandal in Bohemia and Sherlock Holmes did turn to Doctor Watson and say this – “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
In short, wait. Assume nothing. Watch. And then Holmes gets bested, by a woman. Irene Adler fools him. And he’s impressed. But that’s still good advice. Wait. Watch.
And no one could follow that advice on a curious Wednesday night in Washington, the night before Attorney General William Barr, brand new to the job, had promised to release the Mueller report to the public, or at least to Congress, the report on whether President Trump had been a bad boy. Of course he said he would redact any classified stuff, and the protected grand jury stuff, even if he could ask that those protections be lifted, and he’d redact stuff related to ongoing investigations, and of course anything that would embarrass anyone he thought shouldn’t be embarrassed. That last category was odd. Everyone expected about seventeen words – nothing at all – but this was his right. Robert Mueller was a special prosecutor, reporting to him, not an independent prosecutor, so he could withhold anything he wanted to withhold, and redact anything he wanted to redact, and show no one anything and tell the nation what he said that Mueller had said. And he had already done that two weeks earlier – Mueller had cleared Trump of absolutely everything and that was that. Mueller said nothing. He’s disappeared. But his people raised holy hell – that’s not what they had found and they had written their own summaries that Barr had blown off – so Barr said his initial summary shouldn’t be seen as a summary, even if he had called it a summary. He’d release the report. People would see what was what – don’t theorize before one has data – except most of the report would be blacked out.
That was the plan for Thursday morning, but things got weird on Wednesday evening. The New York Times had reported that Barr’s folks had spent two weeks telling Trump’s lawyers exactly what was in the report, so they could prepare detailed packages of clever rebuttals. Barr’s folks didn’t give them their own copies of the full report with no redactions – they’re not that dumb – but they helped out. And then President Trump mentioned, in passing, that Barr was going to hold a Thursday morning press briefing to explain the release of the Mueller report. That was news to Barr, so Barr scheduled that. There’d be a morning briefing. He’d explain everything. Mueller would not be there. Not one of Mueller’s staff could be there. He, William Barr, would explain everything. He’d say, once again, what was in the report – but no one in Congress or anyone else would see the report until late afternoon – just before Good Friday and the Easter weekend. If people were going to compare his assessment with what was in the report, heavily redacted as it was, and disagree with his assessment that Trump had done nothing wrong, ever, that would have to wait until the following Monday. It was a holiday weekend.
This was, of course, like Nixon and the Watergate tapes. President Nixon said he’d provide summaries of what was on those tapes, proving he had done nothing wrong. The Supreme Court – in a unanimous decision way back when – said that wouldn’t do. No summaries – no redactions – turn over the tapes. It was like old times. Democrats were outraged. Barr explains everything and they get their heavily redacted Mueller version of events many hours later, after everyone has left town, but it’s a capital mistake to theorize before one has data, and Barr knew better all along:
The Justice Department plans to release a lightly redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s 400-page report Thursday, offering a granular look at the ways in which President Trump was suspected of having obstructed justice, people familiar with the matter said.
The report – the general outlines of which the Justice Department has briefed the White House on – will reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the question of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and because some of his actions could be interpreted innocently, these people said. But it will offer a detailed blow-by-blow of the president’s alleged conduct – analyzing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the center of Mueller’s inquiry, they added.
That could be deadly, but it had to be done. Barr was looking like one more pathetic fool for Trump:
Thursday’s rollout plan – and news of the White House’s advance briefing, which was first reported by ABC News and the New York Times – sparked a political firestorm Wednesday, with Democrats suggesting the attorney general was trying to improperly color Mueller’s findings before the public could read them.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference that Barr “appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump” and had “taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation.”
He said after his committee had time to review the redacted report, he would ask Mueller and other members of his team to testify before Congress.
They want to know more:
While the report’s light redactions might allay some of their concerns, Democrats are likely to bristle at any material that is withheld. What the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers might view as modest, lawmakers might see as overly aggressive. The redacted version of the report is expected to reveal extensive details about Trump’s actions in office that came under scrutiny, but it is unclear how much the public will learn about how the special counsel’s team investigated the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and Russian contacts with Trump associates.
And of course there’s this:
Barr also is likely to face scrutiny over the Justice Department’s talks with the White House – which could help Trump and his attorneys hone in advance their attacks on the report.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, has said he is preparing a counter-report to Mueller’s findings and in a recent interview said his document would explain from the president’s viewpoint every episode that could be considered obstructive. Giuliani and others have long feared Mueller’s findings on obstruction, viewing them as potentially more damaging than anything found on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians.
Rudy now has his detailed packages of clever rebuttals, thanks to Barr, who is now waiting for what comes next:
Barr has faced intense scrutiny from the public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill for his handling of Mueller’s report so far. The Thursday news conference could give him an opportunity to address his critics – and perhaps provide them fresh ammunition. It is sure to be watched closely by Trump, an avid TV viewer whose relationship with his attorney general will almost certainly be colored by Mueller’s findings and what Barr says about them.
But it’s a capital mistake to theorize before one has data – perhaps Barr is fair-minded and not Trump’s enforcer – but there’s more to this:
The Justice Department also revealed in a court filing Thursday in the criminal case against longtime Trump friend Roger Stone that it plans to let a “limited number” of lawmakers and their staff review Mueller’s report “without certain redactions, including removing the redaction of information related to the charges set forth in the indictment in this case.”
Roger Stone stands accused of working with Julian Assange and the Russians, on behalf of Donald Trump, to destroy Hillary Clinton and get Trump elected. Stone’s attorneys want to know what’s in that report. At least someone will know. A “limited number” of lawmakers will know too, although not one of them knew a thing about this until late Wednesday. But what does anyone know? It’s all theorizing before the facts, whatever they might be, if anyone will ever know, if anyone can ever know.
It’s probably best to plan some damage control. Politico’s Nancy Cook reports this:
When the Mueller report crashes into a Washington feverish with anticipation on Thursday, the White House hopes to show President Donald Trump busy doing his job – and far away from a phone-sized keyboard.
Trump typically spends the first half of his workday in the White House residence in “executive time” – making phone calls, reading news reports, keeping an eye on the TV and talking to top officials.
That’s exactly when the Department of Justice is expected to release special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, and when the freewheeling tweeter-in-chief is likely to have the least amount of supervision.
So on Thursday, the president’s hands will not be idle: Trump and the first lady will host an event for wounded warriors before he meets with the secretary of state and then departs for a long Easter weekend at Mar-a-Lago, according to his public schedule and a Federal Aviation Administration notice.
The goal for Thursday is to use the bully pulpit of the White House to give the appearance of a president consumed by the demands of his office.
That seems a bit of a stretch after the last two years, but that’s the plan, for good reason:
“The White House’s intent is to brush this off and move on as quickly as possible,” said one Republican close to the White House. “That is the approach the White House counsel will want the president to take – though it is up the president to do it,” the same Republican added. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Aside from the uncertainty of what will be disclosed in the report itself, there’s a second major wild card: Trump.
What could trigger the president is any hint in the Mueller report that one of his current and former aides, many of whom cooperated with the investigation at the direction of then-White House lawyer Ty Cobb, gave evidence or recounted conversations that somehow embarrasses Trump or his family members.
Keep him busy or he’ll be angry:
Mueller’s team talked to a raft of Trump aides including former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former senior strategist Steve Bannon, former top attorney Don McGahn, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, among others. McGahn alone sat reportedly sat with the special investigators’ team for 30 hours of interviews.
“It is an important thing to the president that these people are not seen” in the report as attacking him personally, said the close White House adviser.
McGahn’s tenure in the White House ended in a deeply broken relationship between the White House counsel and the president. McGahn was frustrated by the frequency of president’s outbursts, causing him to nickname the commander-in-chief, “King Kong,” and Trump felt equally frustrated that the White House’s top attorney did not do more to shield him personally, or stop the special investigation.
Since McGahn left in October 2018, Trump has continued to complain about him with some frequency – fuming about the various ways he feels McGahn failed him, according to the close White House adviser.
But Bill Barr hasn’t failed him. Josh Marshall sums up the situation:
The fix is in. The goal here is to max out every avenue to protect the President from the contents of the Report. Bill Barr and his friends at the White House clearly do not care what anyone outside of Trump world thinks at this point. They are not even bothering to keep up appearances at the margins. A good and increasingly relevant question for Bill Barr at this point would be at what point the statutory powers of the Attorney General can amount to obstruction of justice if exercised with corrupt intent.
Yes, Barr is obstructing justice:
Barr and his lieutenants at the DOJ have repeatedly briefed the President’s lawyers about the contents of the Mueller Report. So the President and those working for him have gotten a privileged advanced look at the results of the investigation into the President himself – ahead of Congress and ahead of the public. Indeed, it appears that the President and his lawyers have gotten more of a look at the Report than the Attorney General ever intends to give to Congress or the public.
This raises a related and critical point. Barr and his lieutenants have been briefing the White House about the contents of the Report and discussing its contents while the process of redaction is underway. Even if we posit the hypothetical that Barr didn’t consciously want to give the President and his lawyers a voice in the redaction process, it’s basically impossible for one conversation not to infect or influence the other.
This is a bedrock assumption in every regulation or administrative guideline addressed to conflicts of interest. The dialog between the DOJ and the President’s lawyers is explicitly about rebutting or defending allegations or asserted facts in the report. Having one side of that discussion in charge of deciding what gets hidden from the public and what doesn’t fatally delegitimizes the redaction process. Of course, there’s little reason to believe giving the White House such a voice wasn’t a planned and explicit part of those discussions.
And there’s this to consider:
Barr had basically no role in the probe. He took over at DOJ when it was substantively finished. He is on record as arguing that both components of the probe – the 2016 election and obstruction of justice – were essentially baseless and illegitimate. He has no reasonable basis to be the person who describes the findings of the report. Very clearly, he’s there to spin the report in the President’s favor.
A few days after what was actually the Second Barr Letter (the exoneration letter), Barr justified that letter by telling Chairman Nadler that he did “not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report.” Now he’s decided it actually would be in the public’s interest to summarize the report. Things change.
As I said, there’s little attempt here even to keep up appearances…
Every detail of this has been planned to spin the Report or maximally conceal it in the interests of protecting the President.
None of this is on the level.
But it’s a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Barr might not be a pathetic Trump tool. Wait. Watch. Yeah, right.