Attorney General William Barr sought to reassure Congress and the public that the Mueller report will be released, promising in a new letter that “everyone will soon be able to read it on their own.” The letter also answers crucial questions about the process but highlights new battle lines in the escalating fight over who gets to see Mueller’s work.
Barr’s letter comes as Democrats have become increasingly concerned that the attorney general wouldn’t make the full text of Mueller’s report available, after he released a brief, four-page summary of the findings less than one week ago. Barr’s March 29 missive expressly tries to alleviate some of those fears, but there is still wide latitude for large portions of the report to be hidden from Congress or the public.
“I share your desire to ensure that Congress and the public have the opportunity to read the Special Counsel’s report,” Barr wrote in a letter addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. “Everyone will soon be able to read it on their own.”
Barr’s letter revealed new details about the process of releasing the report (including revealing its length: nearly 400 pages, not including tables and appendices), but while some of Democrats’ concerns may have been allayed, they’re already gearing up for a new phase of the fight. The attorney general listed the four types of information he is working on redacting from the report: grand jury material, information that could compromise sensitive intelligence sources or methods, details related to ongoing investigations and “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
Questions have lingered over what material to do with President Donald Trump that Barr might redact. The prevailing opinion in the Justice Department is that a sitting president can’t be indicted, and it’s typical department practice not to reveal information gathered about people who aren’t going to be charged. That could mean that Barr would scrub any information about Trump from the report. By citing “peripheral third parties,” Barr seems to imply that Trump won’t fall into that category. Still, depending on what Mueller’s report contains, it’s not clear how lengthy or significant the redacted sections will be.
Congress is already pushing to see the full report with no redactions. “Congress requires the full and complete Mueller report, without redactions, as well as access to the underlying evidence, by April 2,” Nadler said in a statement released shortly after the letter, establishing the push for access to redacted materials as the new front in the war.
“If the Department fails to make the Mueller report public in its entirety and turn over the underlying evidence to Congress, it may be actively facilitating a cover-up,” said a Democratic House staffer.
Another key question about transparency has been whether the White House would get access to the report before Congress to make executive privilege claims. This, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, tells TIME, is “where the ideological views of the Attorney General may have the greatest potential to threaten the transparency” of the report.
Many Democrats worried that Barr’s strong views of executive power would make him deferential to broad assertions of privilege by the White House. But in this new letter, Barr says explicitly that he doesn’t plan to go down that road at all. “Although the President would have the right to assert privilege over certain parts of the report,” Barr wrote, “he has stated publicly that he intends to defer to me and, accordingly, there are no plans to submit the report to the White House for a privilege review.”
Responding to that news, Trump said Friday, “I have great confidence in the Attorney General, if that’s what he’d like to do. I have nothing to hide.”
That may be reassuring to Democrats, along with the fact that Barr could have sent another summary to Congress instead of the report itself. There was a change in regulations after independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton: When Starr submitted his final report in 1998, he had to send it to Congress as well as to the attorney general. But when the special counsel regulations were written the following year, the notification to Congress requirement was removed.
That means that Barr has almost sole authority over what information to share with Congress and the public, and he does not have to provide the report to lawmakers. Democrats had begun to ramp up pressure on Barr to send them the report itself rather than another summary. “We don’t need you interpreting for us,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, referencing his March 24 letter. “It was condescending, it was arrogant, and it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
In his new letter, Barr chastises those “mischaracterizing” his previous letter. “My March 24 letter was not, and did not purport to be, an exhaustive recounting of the Special Counsel’s investigation or report… I do not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report or to release it in serial or piecemeal fashion,” he wrote. Barr says he anticipates being able to release a redacted version of Mueller’s full report by mid-April.
Barr’s latest letter removes some of the crucial questions about points in the process where large chunks of Mueller’s report could have been scrubbed. If Barr plans to release the report itself—not a summary of it— and doesn’t plan to show it in the White House in advance, Congress and the American public should learn many new details about Mueller’s two-year-long investigation in a matter of weeks. And that won’t be the end of Barr’s input: he also said he would testify himself before both the House and Senate about the investigation. (Graham accepted his invitation to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1.)
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, one of Trump’s allies in Congress, said on Twitter that Democrats should be cheered by the process. “Mueller report will be public, AG Barr going above and beyond to expedite it, WH won’t review before, and Mueller even helping,” he tweeted. “Yet Chairman Nadler and Democrats still complain. It smells of pure desperation.”
Some congressional Democrats did express some relief at Barr’s letter. “I’m pleased that he committed to a public release of Special Counsel Mueller’s report and wholeheartedly agreed that everyone should have a chance to read it,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. Though she also warned: “even if parts of the report are redacted from the public, the committees should receive those portions, including any classified information, as is routine.”
Until Congress is granted access to the report in its entirety, the fight will continue. “We feel that it is critical for Attorney General Barr to come before Congress immediately to explain the rationale behind his letter,” Nadler said, “his rapid decision that the evidence developed was insufficient to establish an obstruction of justice offense, and his continued refusal to provide us with the full report.”
-With reporting by Abby Vesoulis