The Slatest

The Discrepancy Between the Mueller Report and Barr’s Summary Is Telling

William Barr looks downward while standing at the lectern. Rod Rosenstein stands behind him.
Attorney General William Barr speaks at a press conference about the release of the Mueller report at the Department of Justice on Thursday as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein looks on.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Reporters and other interested parties are still reading through the 448-page Mueller report for new and revelatory information, but one thing was quickly apparent: Attorney General William Barr’s depiction of the report in his written summary last month and his address Thursday morning didn’t give the full story.

If there’s one conclusion you would come away with after Barr’s address this morning, it’s that there was no collusion. Barr conceded that, yes, Mueller found that Russians had unlawfully sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, and yes, Trump’s campaign likely benefited from these efforts, but Barr maintained that Mueller had found no evidence of any kind of collusion by anyone. Here’s what he said, in a line that he had already quoted in his earlier written report:

As you will see, the special counsel’s report states that his “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

But here’s the full sentence in the report (emphasis ours):

Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Cutting off the beginning of the sentence doesn’t change the end result. But on its own, Barr’s sentence makes the whole thing seem so simple, when that’s far from the reality revealed in the report. Even if there was no proof of coordination, there was still uncomfortable behavior, still a Don Jr. meeting with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, still campaign officials with murky connections to states with political aims very much at odds with America’s. That’s a sense you get better from the fuller sentence, reminding the reader of just how the Trump campaign stood to gain from Russian meddling.

Here’s another example, Barr’s next quote from his address Thursday:

Indeed, as the report states, “[t]he investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.” Put another way, the special counsel found no “collusion” by any Americans in the IRA’s illegal activity.

But here’s the full version from the report:

By early to mid-2016, [Internet Research Agency] operations included supporting the Trump Campaign and disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton. The IRA made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Some IRA employees, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated electronically with individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities, including the staging of political rallies. The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.

Again, the full passage shows that there was nothing cut and dry about the situation. And a third example, in Barr’s written summary from March, shows the attorney general’s cherry-picking at its most brazen:

In making this determination [that there was no obstruction-of-justice offense], we noted that the special counsel recognized that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” and that, while not determinative, the absence of such evidence bears upon the president’s intent with respect to obstruction.

Here, the full context:

In this investigation, the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. But the evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President’s conduct. These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and potential uncertainty about whether certain events—such as advance notice of WikiLeaks’s release of hacked information or the June 9, 2016 meeting between senior campaign officials and Russians—could be seen as criminal activity by the President, his campaign, or his family.

While Barr didn’t misquote the Mueller report, he did pluck out lines that failed to give the full, nuanced picture of the report’s analysis. There’s a reason critics have been condemning Barr for seeming to abandon his objectivity in order to defend Trump.

As Jeremy Stahl pointed out for Slate, the report does refute coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents to some extent, but it also “seemed to include evidence of a lot of collusion-adjacent activities by those in Trump’s orbit.” And as Mark Joseph Stern argued in Slate, the report did make a case for obstruction—as much as Mueller realistically could, given the limits of his power. But you wouldn’t know that from Barr’s comments, clipped as they are.