Democrats outraged as Trump team shapes Mueller report rollout
Posted April 18, 2019 1:02 a.m. EDT
CNN — America has been waiting two years to hear from Robert Mueller.
But President Donald Trump and his team are not taking any chances, making sure that they get to spin the special counsel's conclusions before the nation gets to see them for itself.
An aggressive administration rollout plan for the release of a redacted version of Mueller's final report Thursday is sparking accusations of blatant political interference. The choreography is bolstering accusations that Trump's team is tipping the scales of justice over a report into the President's behavior before and after an election that a hostile foreign power, Russia, sought to help him win.
Trump announced Wednesday that his handpicked Attorney General William Barr will hold a press conference on the report at 9:30 a.m. ET on Thursday. Officials said that the report would not be released to Congress until after Barr's appearance, druing the 11 a.m. ET hour. And Trump said he may well follow up with his own news conference, as part of what looks like a clear effort to cement initial and crucial first public perceptions of the report.
And The New York Times reported on Wednesday that there had been numerous conversations between the White House and the Justice Department ahead of the release of the Mueller report.
The consultations helped Trump's legal team prepare its defense against the report ahead of the political showdown that is likely to develop over its contents, the paper said.
Democrats quickly expressed alarm that Barr will speak before the report is delivered to Congress, a move that would offer the attorney general a significant advantage and condemned the reported consultations between the White House and the Justice Department.
"Rather than letting the facts of the report speak for themselves, the attorney general has taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller's nearly two-year investigation," said Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler in a news conference Wednesday.
"This is wrong. It is contrary to the attorney general's own words to the committee."
Nadler later joined four other Democratic committee chairs in demanding Barr cancel his scheduled press conference, calling it "unnecessary and inappropriate." The committee chairs objected to the Justice Department reportedly briefing the White House on Mueller's work before Congress
The fast breaking developments on Wednesday evening significantly raised political tensions ahead of a landmark day in American political history.
The administration's plan appears to be the latest attempt by Barr to set the political narrative about the report -- which he has seen and the public and Congress haven't -- in the President's favor.
Last month, Barr told Congress in a letter that Mueller did not establish Trump or his aides coordinated with Russia in its election meddling effort in 2016.
He also concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to show that Trump obstructed justice, after Mueller decided not to make a final determination on the question in his report.
But since Barr has yet to release the report or its underlying evidence, there is no way for outsiders to judge whether his characterization is fair and correct.
It's possible that the report could completely vindicate Barr and reveal Democratic complaints about the release process as unwarranted. But the events on Wednesday significantly increased pressure on the attorney general, and put his reputation as a neutral arbiter of justice on the line.
Barr's decision to hold a press conference is also likely to draw comparisons with former FBI Director James Comey's decision to go before the cameras to explain his decision not to charge Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over her private email server. Comey, who was later fired by Trump, nevertheless heavily criticized Clinton, leading to charges that he interfered in the political process.
Trump happy with 'fantastic' Attorney General
Trump, who has seized on Barr's comments to say he has been totally "exonerated" by Mueller, spent the eve of the report's release attacking the Mueller probe and firing up his rebuttal.
"You'll see a lot of very strong things come out tomorrow," Trump said on WMAL's "Larry O'Connor Show."
"Attorney General Barr is going to be giving a press conference and maybe I'll do one after that, we'll see. But he's been a fantastic attorney general. He's grabbed it by the horns," Trump said.
The Justice Department later said that it, and not the President, decided that Barr would hold a news conference.
The Attorney General will be accompanied by his deputy -- Rod Rosenstein, the elusive figure who initiated the special counsel probe and oversaw it.
A source familiar with the plans said Barr would offer an overview of the report, explain his thinking, and address process questions.
If Congress does not receive the report before Barr's appearance, it is unlikely that journalists would see a copy either, meaning that Barr would be free to give an unchallenged assessment of what Mueller concluded.
Barr's credibility on the line
The administration theatrics are calling into question not just Barr's credibility but any hope that the administration's handling of the Mueller report will finally put to rest the nightmare that still surrounds the 2016 election.
The Times report on contacts between the White House and Justice Department does nothing to ease such concerns.
"It bothers me a lot because it is the latest unseemly development between Attorney General Barr and the President," Philip Allen Lacovara, a former counsel to the Watergate special prosecutors, told CNN's Erin Burnett.
There will be no chance for reporters to question or hear from the special counsel himself, since Mueller's spokesman said the former FBI director will not be at the news conference.
Barr has spent several weeks redacting sections from the Mueller report that cite grand jury testimony, include classified information or bear on active legal cases.