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Column

Barr spoke too soon

Media should have been given time to read the Mueller report before attorney general put his spin on it

On Wednesday, Democrats in Congress complained that Attorney General William Barr would be holding a news conference about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report before the document was actually released. Several chairs of House committees called the news conference “unnecessary and inappropriate” and warned that it “appears designed to shape public perceptions of the report before anyone can read it.”

Were the Democrats right? After watching Barr deliver a prepared statement and spar with reporters, I think their general critique holds up: Barr should have postponed his presser until after reporters (and the public) had time to read, or at least skim, the report.

Despite speculation that Barr would discuss only peripheral issues, such as whether he had discussed the report with the White House and whether executive privilege was invoked, in fact Barr’s comments ranged much more widely.

Barr rehashed the summary of Mueller’s findings that he earlier had included in a March 24 letter to the chairs of the House and Senate judiciary committees, but he also touched on other matters.

For example, he endorsed the idea that certain actions by President Trump must be understood in light of the fact that, as he entered office, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his actions and the news media were engaging in “relentless speculation” about his culpability.

“There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” Barr said, “propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.” Bear in mind that Mueller did not get the chance to interview Trump.

Once reporters began questioning Barr, it was obvious that they were at a disadvantage because they hadn’t had an opportunity to read the report. That vindicates the Democrats’ criticism that the news conference was “inappropriate” – or at least ill-timed.

What about the Democrats’ other complaint – that Barr’s news conference “seemed designed to shape public perceptions of the report before anyone can read it”?

That criticism also turned out to be prophetic. In addition to emphasizing how much pressure Trump was under because of investigations, Barr repeatedly asserted that there was “no collusion,” mouthing Trump’s favorite claim of vindication.

Barr will face further questions about the report and his gloss of it now that the document has been released, including interrogation by Congress. He said that he would testify before House and Senate committees.

Those panels will have the benefit of having read Mueller’s report; journalists should have had the same opportunity.

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