WASHINGTON — After nearly two years of waiting, America will get some answers straight from Robert Mueller— but not before President Donald Trump’s attorney general has his say.
The Justice Department on Thursday is expected to release a redacted version of the special counsel’s report on Russian election interference and Trump’s campaign, opening up months, if not years, of fights over what the document means in a deeply divided country.
Even the planned release of the report quickly spiraled into a political struggle Wednesday over whether Attorney General William Barr is attempting to shield the president who appointed him and spin the report’s findings before the American people can read it and come to their own judgments.
Barr will hold a 9:30 a.m. news conference accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the investigation after Mueller’s appointment in May 2017. But Mueller and other members of his team will not attend, special counsel spokesman Peter Carr said.
The news conference, which was first announced by Trump during a radio interview, provoked immediate criticism from congressional Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York.
Nadler tweeted Congress won’t receive the report until 11 a.m. or noon, a move he called “wrong.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a tweet that Barr will “spin a report no one has read” and encouraged people to “wait to read Mueller’s words for yourself.”
Barr formulated the roll-out for the report and briefed the White House on his plans, according to a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley declined to comment on an ABC News report that the White House had been briefed on the contents of Mueller’s report beyond what was relayed by Barr in a public letter last month.
The Justice Department also plans to provide a “limited number” of members of Congress and their staff access to a copy of the Mueller report with fewer redactions than the public version, according to a court filing Wednesday.
The nearly 400-page report is expected to reveal what Mueller uncovered about ties between the Trump campaign and Russia that fell short of criminal conduct. It will also lay out the special counsel’s conclusions about formative episodes in Trump’s presidency, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey and his efforts to undermine the Russia investigation publicly and privately.
The report is not expected to place the president in legal jeopardy, as Barr made his own decision that Trump shouldn’t be prosecuted for obstruction. But it is likely to contain unflattering details about the president’s efforts to control the Russia investigation that will cloud his ability to credibly claim total exoneration. And it may paint the Trump campaign as eager to exploit Russian aid and emails stolen from Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign even if no Americans crossed the line into criminal activity.
The report’s release will be a test of Barr’s credibility as the public and Congress judge whether he is using his post to protect Trump, who said Wednesday he may take questions about the report after its release.
Barr will also face scrutiny over how much of the report he blacks out and whether Mueller’s document lines up with a letter the attorney general released last month. The letter said Mueller didn’t find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government but he found evidence on “both sides” of the question of whether the president obstructed justice.
Barr has said he is withholding grand jury and classified information as well as portions relating to ongoing investigation and the privacy or reputation of uncharged “peripheral” people. But how liberally he interprets those categories is yet to be seen.
Democrats have vowed to fight in court for the disclosure of the additional information from the report. They are expected to seize on any negative portrait of the president to demand the release of the full report and will be looking for any signs that Barr is trying to shield Trump and his family.
Mueller is known to have investigated multiple efforts by the president over the last two years to influence the Russia probe or shape public perception of it.
In addition to Comey’s firing, Mueller scrutinized the president’s request of Comey to end an investigation into Trump’s first national security adviser; his relentless badgering of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his recusal from the Russia investigation; and his role in drafting an incomplete explanation about a meeting his oldest son took at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
Justice Department legal opinions say that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but Barr said he did not take that into account when he decided the evidence was insufficient to establish obstruction. That conclusion was perhaps not surprising given Barr’s own unsolicited memo to the Justice Department from last June in which he said a president could not obstruct justice by taking actions — like the firing of an FBI director — that he is legally empowered to take.
Overall, Mueller brought charges against 34 people — including six Trump aides and advisers — and revealed a sophisticated, wide-ranging Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Twenty-five of those charged were Russians accused either in the hacking of Democratic email accounts or of a hidden but powerful social media effort to spread disinformation online.
Five former Trump aides or advisers pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in Mueller’s investigation, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Stone is awaiting trial on charges including false statements and obstruction.