America has been waiting two years to hear from Robert Mueller.
But President Donald Trump’s team did not take any chances, making sure they got to spin the special counsel’s conclusions before the nation gets to see them for itself.
Attorney General William Barr appeared before the cameras before releasing the report to Congress and the public to outline Mueller’s findings in a press conference in which he praised the President. He also ascribed behavior that it appears Mueller may have flagged as possible obstruction of justice to frustration on Trump’s part about the investigation.
“After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, and hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes,” Barr said.
On the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr’s comments pointed to a possible difference of interpretation between he and Mueller on whether certain conduct constitutes an offense and intent, opening the way to a huge constitutional and political debate.
“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,” Barr said.
But he added that Trump took no act to stop aides testifying to Mueller.
“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.” Barr said.
The attorney general’s comments played directly into warnings by Democrats before his press conference that the administration was trying to set the political narrative from a position of advantage since the public and members of Congress did not yet have the report.
It will add to a pattern of conduct that has raised questions about whether Barr, Trump’s hand-picked nominee and after a few months on the job, is acting more to protect the President than as the independent figurehead of a neutral system of justice.
The report is due to be delivered to Congress after 11 a.m. ET. It will be made public soon after on the Justice Department website.
But the manner of its unveiling sent political tensions over the report that were already high into the stratosphere.
“Now that President @realDonaldTrump’s campaign press conference is over: It’s time for Congress and the American public to see the #MuellerReport,” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted.
Trump bolstered the impression that the administration had choreographed Thursday’s rollout for maximum political advantage by tweeting a “Games of Thrones”-style image of himself.
“No Collusion, No Obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – Game Over,” the tweet read.
Democrats immediately demanded that Mueller himself testify to Capitol Hill, arguing that Barr had shown himself to be a flawed arbiter of the report’s findings.
“It is clear Congress and the American people must hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in person to better understand his findings. We are now requesting Mueller to appear before @HouseJudiciary as soon as possible,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler wrote in a tweet.
Democratic presidential candidates expressed outrage over Barr’s handling of the report, which went far beyond a discussion of “process” that aides had promised reporters on Wednesday night.
“It’s a disgrace to see an Attorney General acting as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist for the President of the United States,” said a tweet by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that there had been numerous conversations between the White House and the Justice Department ahead of the release of the Mueller report.
The consultations helped Trump’s legal team prepare its defense against the report ahead of the political showdown that is likely to develop over its contents, the paper said.
Barr said that the President’s personal lawyers were allowed to read a redacted version of the report before its release. He said they did not request and were not permitted to make any further redactions.
House on Mueller’s work before Congress
The fast-breaking developments significantly raised political tensions ahead of a landmark day in American political history.
The administration’s plan appears to be the latest attempt by Barr to set the political narrative about the report – which he has seen and the public and Congress haven’t – in the President’s favor.
Last month, Barr told Congress in a letter that Mueller did not establish Trump or his aides coordinated with Russia in its election meddling effort in 2016.
He also concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to show that Trump obstructed justice, after Mueller decided not to make a final determination on the question in his report.
But since Barr has yet to release the report or its underlying evidence, there is no way for outsiders to judge whether his characterization is fair and correct.
It’s possible that the report could completely vindicate Barr and reveal Democratic complaints about the release process as unwarranted. But the events on Wednesday significantly increased pressure on the attorney general, and put his reputation as a neutral arbiter of justice on the line.
Barr’s decision to hold a press conference is also likely to draw comparisons with former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to go before the cameras to explain his decision not to charge Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over her private email server. Comey, who was later fired by Trump, nevertheless heavily criticized Clinton, leading to charges that he interfered in the political process.
Trump happy with ‘fantastic’ attorney general
Trump, who has seized on Barr’s comments to say he has been totally “exonerated” by Mueller, spent the eve of the report’s release attacking the Mueller probe and firing up his rebuttal.
“You’ll see a lot of very strong things come out tomorrow,” Trump said on WMAL’s “Larry O’Connor Show.”
“Attorney General Barr is going to be giving a press conference and maybe I’ll do one after that, we’ll see. But he’s been a fantastic attorney general. He’s grabbed it by the horns,” Trump said.
The Justice Department later said that it, and not the President, decided that Barr would hold a news conference.
The attorney general will be accompanied by his deputy – Rod Rosenstein, the elusive figure who initiated the special counsel probe and oversaw it.
A source familiar with the plans said Barr would offer an overview of the report, explain his thinking, and address process questions.
If Congress does not receive the report before Barr’s appearance, it is unlikely that journalists would see a copy either, meaning that Barr would be free to give an unchallenged assessment of what Mueller concluded.
Barr’s credibility on the line
The administration theatrics are calling into question not just Barr’s credibility but any hope that the administration’s handling of the Mueller report will finally put to rest the nightmare that still surrounds the 2016 election.
The Times report on contacts between the White House and Justice Department does nothing to ease such concerns.
“It bothers me a lot because it is the latest unseemly development between Attorney General Barr and the President,” Philip Allen Lacovara, a former counsel to the Watergate special prosecutors, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
There will be no chance for reporters to question or hear from the special counsel himself, since Mueller’s spokesman said the former FBI director will not be at the news conference.
Barr has spent several weeks redacting sections from the Mueller report that cite grand jury testimony, include classified information or bear on active legal cases.
CNN’s Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.