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Friday, May 03, 2019 1:00 am

Barr owes the nation complete explanation

Washington Post editorial

Attorney General William Barr entered office with more credibility than many Trump appointees.

A veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, Barr avowed loyalty to the Justice Department's mission and, nearing the end of his career, seemed to have little incentive to serve as another Trump sycophant. Yet Barr has lit his reputation on fire, and he just added more fuel during his Wednesday testimony before a Senate panel.

Much of the hearing centered on the attorney general's decision to release a highly misleading representation of the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. In particular, Barr failed to acknowledge the alarming nature of Mueller's analysis on whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice, and he did not explain why the special counsel declined to say whether Trump was guilty of the charge.

This matters: Given the damning account in Mueller's report, what appeared to be keeping the special counsel from accusing the president of criminal acts was not the lack of evidence but the fact that the president cannot be charged under Justice Department rules.

Barr defended himself Wednesday by insisting that his memo, publicized weeks before he released any additional material, was technically accurate, despite the fact that his spin deeply affected the reception of Mueller's full report when the public finally got it.

It was not supposed to be a full summary of the special counsel's report, he insisted – just a brief explanation of the top-line conclusions.

Barr's long history in Washington belies his argument: He should have known how his pre-spinning of the report would distort the truth of the special counsel's damning findings to the president's benefit. He did it anyway.

The Post revealed Tuesday that, shortly after Barr released his memo, Mueller sent a letter to the attorney general, objecting that the memo “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the special counsel's report. Barr did not mention this letter when he told members of Congress last month that he had no knowledge of any frustration on the part of Mueller's staff.

In other words, after releasing a spin job on the Mueller report, he misled Congress on whether the special counsel was unhappy about it.

On this and other matters, Barr has cited personal conversations with Mueller to defend his actions. According to Barr, the special counsel was more unhappy with the media coverage of the attorney general's memo than with the memo itself. Barr also insisted that Mueller said Justice Department policy on charging sitting presidents did not determine his decision on accusing Trump of a crime – even though that was a key consideration in the analysis Mueller included in his report.

It is long past time the public stopped hearing Barr's views on how Mueller feels, and heard from the special counsel himself. The Justice Department should enable Mueller to speak publicly and under oath at the earliest opportunity.

The special counsel should address not only his substantive findings on the president's misbehavior but also the attorney general's manipulation of his work. Not just Trump should be held accountable for his actions. So should his attorney general.