Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Barr's statement on obstruction of justice was during his press conference.
There is a widening divide between what Attorney General William Barr has said publicly about the special counsel’s investigation and Robert Mueller’s actual report. Barr previewed the report in a four-page letter to lawmakers last month and again on Thursday in a press conference just before the Justice Department released the nearly 450-page document.
With the report available to the public, it’s increasingly clear that it tells a starkly different story than what Barr was spinning. Here are four ways Barr twisted Mueller’s words.
One thing was crystal clear from Barr’s press conference: No collusion! The attorney general’s willingness to echo President Donald Trump’s favorite two-word mantra was evident throughout his remarks.
“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 Thursday morning.
It’s true: Mueller did not establish that there was a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. Full stop.
But the report provides much more context. Mueller uncovered “multiple links” connecting Trump aides to Russian officials and that there was at least some willingness to collude – like Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump Tower meeting – though collusion never came to fruition.
In the report, Mueller said his investigation concluded that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” and that the campaign “showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate (Hillary) Clinton.”
This isn’t criminal, but it isn’t pretty.
Also, Barr’s use of the word “collusion,” which he repeated multiple times, raised some eyebrows in the legal community. In the report, Mueller intentionally steered clear of that political phrase because it “is not a specific offense” under US law, “nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.”
Obstruction of justice
In his letter to lawmakers late last month, Barr said Mueller conducted a thorough investigation of whether Trump obstructed justice but didn’t offer a conclusion one way or the other. Barr quoted from the report, saying Mueller struggled with “difficult issues” when assessing obstruction.
Without a definitive ruling from Mueller, Barr then stepped in and cleared Trump of obstruction.
“After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report… the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction of justice offense,” Barr said Thursday.
This is misleading in a few ways. There’s a lot to digest here.
First, Barr was misleading when quoting Mueller about the “difficult issues.” The special counsel did not struggle with whether there was enough evidence to bring a case of obstruction of justice. The challenge was that they amassed compelling evidence but couldn’t indict a President even if they wanted to.
Here’s what the report actually said: “…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”
Finally, Barr’s 4-page summary also claimed that Mueller’s report “sets out evidence on both sides of the question” of obstruction, which gave the strong impression that it was a close call.
The report’s volume on obstruction, which is exhaustive in its breadth and detail, includes very little exculpatory evidence for Trump. Prosecutors had everything they needed to charge Trump, and they went to great lengths to explain over and over how they met the legal threshold to make a case – if they could.
Indicting a President
Last month and again on Thursday, Barr downplayed the role that Justice Department guidelines played when Mueller considered whether Trump violated the law.
Internal Justice Department policies say that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The policy comes from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and it dates back to the Nixon administration. It is binding on all Justice Department employees, including Mueller and his team of prosecutors.
Barr told reporters that he met with Mueller in early March and discussed this topic in person.
“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion,” Barr said at his press conference. “And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position.”
But Mueller’s report directly explains how this had a major impact on his internal deliberations. In effect, Mueller framed his entire obstruction investigation around the notion that he couldn’t bring any charges against Trump even if he found ironclad evidence against him, because of the OLC opinion.
“Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations… this Office accepted OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction,” Mueller wrote in the report.
That appeared on the very first page of the volume that addressed obstruction of justice. This framework is a far cry from Barr’s public pronouncements that the OLC opinion had no bearing on obstruction endgame.
The role of Congress
One big question that Barr answered during his press conference was whether Mueller intended for his report to be a roadmap for Congress to follow, perhaps down the path of impeachment.
“Special Counsel Mueller did not indicate that his purpose was to leave the decision to Congress,” Barr said. “I hope that was not his view, since we don’t convene grand juries and conduct criminal investigations for that purpose.”
Those comments gave the impression that Mueller might not have mentioned Congress at all.
Mueller never explicitly said that Congress should pick up the baton where he left off. But he did directly nod to Congress’ unique powers to hold a President accountable for misconduct.
“With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” the report said.
The report continued: “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
CNN’s Jason Seher contributed to this report.