It is fortunate Attorney General William Barr was not able to lay hands on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Had he been afforded the chance to play Poe’s editor/bulldozer as he has with the Mueller report, generations of macabre literature fans would have spent their candlelit Halloween nights grimly intoning, “Quoth the raven: REDACTED.”
In other words, friends, don’t get your hopes up. Unless the creek rises, the Mueller report as redacted by Barr will see the light of day tomorrow. Nothing in Barr’s distant or recent past gives me hope that he has done anything other than slash that document to black-lined ribbons. You can cross your fingers and wish for Barr’s people at the “Justice” Department to be as hilariously incompetent at redacting as Paul Manafort’s legal team was back in January, but I wouldn’t bet on the possibility with someone else’s money.
This is Barr’s Roy Cohn moment — defend the president even at the cost of your reputation — and he has risen vigorously to the occasion. Barr got his current gig by coughing up an unsolicited and dubiously argued letter slandering the Mueller report using rhetorical tools manufactured by Donald Trump’s allies. His four-page “summary” of the report gave Trump just enough cover to go on a mind-bending self-congratulation spree that has been, of course, utterly divorced from the facts at hand. Just last week, Barr sent the Trumpiverse into paroxysms of glee when he publicly endorsed a strange conspiracy theory regarding “deep state” spying on Trump’s 2016 campaign.
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This behavior does not instill a sense of optimism. “Barr appears to be demolishing his reputation as a respected former Attorney General,” writes Steve Denning for Forbes, “and cementing a revised assessment of him as a mere lackey of a lawless president, thus politicizing the Department of Justice (DOJ) and undermining the rule of law throughout government.”
I agree with everything but the “respected” bit. Speaking personally, I would not follow William Barr into the water. He is a lifelong Republican insider/fixer, the GOP’s own Winston Wolfe, who auditioned for the job of burying the Mueller report without being asked. Only a deeply credulous fool should expect him to do anything other than jump on the Mueller hand grenade for the Republican president who hired him. He has, after all, done it before.
Barr said he pursued a four-tiered approach to the redaction process. Some of his “tiers” are standard practice, and involve removing material that would probably be concealed no matter who was attorney general. Others venture into much blurrier territory.
The first tier is “Grand Jury Material.” In order to protect jurors, witnesses and ongoing investigations, almost all grand jury testimony is deemed secret. This “6(e) material” will have been properly removed from the final report before it is released.
The second tier is “Material Pertaining to Ongoing Investigations.” As with the 6e material, these redactions are proper because protecting the information allows ongoing investigations to continue unimpeded. Given the fact that Mueller farmed out a number of investigation-worthy issues related to Trump, and that a number of agencies are investigating Trump on their own hook, these redactions should be embraced.
The third tier is “Matters Pertaining to ‘Sensitive Intelligence’.” Redactions here will certainly feed the “spying” narrative being cultivated by Trump and his people. Wait for the moment when Trump says the redacted DOJ-generated report exonerates him again while stoking the DOJ-oriented paranoia of his base by pointing out these specific redactions, because that moment is coming. According to Vox, however, “These kinds of redactions will surely be the least controversial ones in Mueller’s document, as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are acutely aware of these risks and are unlikely to push back too hard on them.”
Barr’s final tier is “Matters That May Infringe on the Privacy of ‘Peripheral Third Parties’.” This is where the process gets notably gooey. Ostensibly, redactions like these are meant to protect people ancillary to the investigation, the figure next to the figure next to the target who happened to be in the room when, say, obstruction of justice was discussed. This standard leaves a hole big enough for Barr to steer an aircraft carrier through. His “summary” already made it clear he believes the president did no wrong. That judgment may have motivated Barr to designate Trump himself as a “peripheral third party”: just a poor dupe surrounded by wrongfooting do-gooders whose privacy needs protection … or in this case, heavy redaction.
The only thing giving me pause in my descent toward gloomy resignation over the remaining contents of the Mueller report is the fact that Trump and his people are not nearly as happy as they should be about the release of a document that was redacted by an unabashed ally with the legal power to do just about anything he wants. “The White House is worried,” reports Ryan Bort for Rolling Stone. “On Sunday, ABC’s Jonathan Karl revealed that the administration hasn’t been all smiles since it was briefed ‘in broad brushstrokes’ on the full report.”
Interesting, that. According to Karl, no one in the administration bothered to debrief former White House counsel Don McGahn about what he told Mueller’s team during the 30 hours of interviews he gave them. They have absolutely no idea what he said during those interviews, an incredible yet entirely unsurprising blunder on their part, and now they are cat-nervous about it.
There are also more than a dozen current and former White House officials walking around who, like McGahn, gave sworn testimony to Mueller over the course of the investigation. Today, a bunch of them are devoutly hoping Barr’s redaction pen has deleted their words from the report. If not, they will have a betrayed and angry Trump on their hands. “They got asked questions and told the truth,” a former official told NBC News, “and now they’re worried the wrath will follow.”
Will the redacted report reveal more about Russian collusion/conspiracy than Barr let on? Will there be more evidence of obstruction than Barr indicated? Will there be any worthwhile surprises at all that survived the editor’s heavy hand? I am loath to say any of this is possible given the grim reality of William Barr. Political embarrassment is insufficient when dealing with people incapable of shame. The only real solution to the dilemma is the release of the full, unredacted report, but that will require an uphill legal battle with an uncertain resolution. No laws prevent the public release of the report, but DOJ regulations essentially leave the decision to Barr alone. Three guesses on what course he’s likely to choose. First two don’t count.
In any event, tomorrow won’t be boring. The absence of Congress, which is on recess, may cause a delayed reaction from Democrats that could certainly embolden Trump, who needs little prodding to cannonball off the deep end. Whatever Barr didn’t spill a can of black paint on will probably be worth reading no matter what — but like I said, don’t get your hopes up. Just stay tuned and see what [REDACTED].