Robert Mueller is a stickler for the rules. The special counsel team he led was a leakproof box, his spokesman seldom spoke and his only public statements came in the form of indictments and court filings.
But on March 27, three days after Attorney General William Barr cleared President Trump of criminal wrongdoing in a misleading and incomplete summary of Mr. Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation, the special counsel felt compelled to protest. In a letter made public on Wednesday, just as Mr. Barr was preparing to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the American public got its first glimpse of how the special counsel thinks and speaks about his work.
Mr. Mueller’s tone and tenor are remarkable — and a sharp rebuke to Mr. Barr:
“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” Mr. Mueller wrote in a letter addressed to Mr. Barr, whose characterizations of Mr. Mueller’s investigation have also come under fire by members of the special counsel’s team.
The special counsel notes in his letter that just a day after Mr. Barr’s effort to spin the findings of the investigation (which Mr. Trump crowed was a “Complete and Total EXONERATION”), Mr. Mueller raised “concern” about all the confusion and misreporting that the attorney general had caused.
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mr. Mueller wrote. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
(Mr. Barr referred in his testimony to Mr. Mueller’s letter as “a bit snitty,” and suggested it had been written by an underling.)
For an institutionalist like Mr. Mueller, who never once spoke up to defend himself or his work from relentless attacks from the president and his Republican allies, the letter is an unusual (and welcome) breach of protocol. It is rare for a senior Department of Justice official to so sharply criticize the attorney general in a written communication that would soon be made public.
Clearly, Mr. Mueller deemed it necessary. Beginning in early March, he and Mr. Barr were in close contact and seemed to have reached a gentlemen’s agreement about the timely public release of the special counsel’s findings without compromising grand jury material, intelligence sources and methods or current criminal investigations.
Mr. Mueller noted that he had prepared detailed and accurate summaries of the two volumes of the report, one on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the second on potential obstruction of justice:
At this time. In late March, the special counsel wanted the crux of his findings delivered to the American public immediately, to clear up the misconceptions Mr. Barr had left with his four-page summary letter to Congress. Instead, Mr. Barr took another three weeks to release the summaries and the full report, saying he needed to go through it line by line to redact any privileged material.
In congressional testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Barr justified the delay by saying he didn’t want to release the report “piecemeal,” and said that Mr. Mueller’s summaries were “underinclusive.” He asserted that the report became his responsibility after the special counsel submitted it, which is true in a formalistic sense: The regulations governing Mr. Mueller’s work call for a “confidential” report to the attorney general at the conclusion of the inquiry, which the attorney general may then release if he determined it “would be in the public interest.”
That Mr. Mueller quoted from this regulatory language in his letter to Mr. Barr shows that he cares about rules, perhaps to a fault. But it also shows that Mr. Mueller sensed the urgency of his conclusions — and that he couldn’t sit idly by as the chief legal officer of the United States actively undermined them.