Beading like the dew on a cold beer bottle, leaks of inside information from special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of President Donald Trump and Russian meddling are trickling into view. On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the New York Times and the Washington Post respectively, reported that the Mueller report could be more damaging to Trump than Attorney General William P. Barr’s terse and exculpatory condensation of the Mueller findings would suggest. Later in the day, the Wall Street Journal joined the scrum with a concurring take.
As sure as the seasons turn, we all knew that Mueller’s people would wave the flag if Barr interpretation of their report contradicted their intent. Obviously it has, and all of the players are now scrambling to hit their marks, read their premeditated lines, and prepare for the inevitable improvisational moments to come.
All three newspapers used similar language to describe what Mueller’s people have told “associates”—that they’re unhappy with Barr’s March 24 summary, which found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Their unhappiness is only the gristle, not the meat of the leak. Not to take anything away from the stories, but the biggest news here is that the Mueller team’s long quiet period has ended. Mueller’s previously tight-lipped squad is finally talking—or at least lending winking permission to their friends to share their complaints against Barr. The political implications are huge. By releasing the information in a way that placed it on Page One, the Muellerites have now signaled that they intend to pressure Barr until he coughs up a more comprehensive account of the report on which they spent 22 months and an estimated $30 million. It doesn’t take much speculation to credit the Mueller gang with executing a shrewd pincer movement—his people contesting Barr from one side while Congress presses in on the other.
Sensing the danger presented by the Mueller team’s revelations, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani lowered both barrels on them in an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News Channel show on Wednesday night. “They’re a bunch of sneaky, unethical leakers,” Giuliani said. “I can’t tell you how much false information they leaked during the course of the investigation.” One reason Rudy can’t tell you might be because there doesn’t seem to have been any such leaks during the investigation.
The scoops go beyond the unhappiness of Mueller’s deckhands about Barr’s summary. The Times reports that Mueller made Barr’s work easy for him by writing “multiple summaries” of the report that could have been used to put more meat on the bones of his March 24 summary. According to the Post, “The report was prepared ‘so that the front matter from each section could have been released immediately—or very quickly,’ the official said. ‘It was done in a way that minimum redactions, if any, would have been necessary, and the work would have spoken for itself.’” Speaking through their intermediaries, the Muellerites told the Washington Post that they were caught off guard by the way Trump used the hash of a summary to declare “total exoneration”—words that appear nowhere in Barr’s work, much less Mueller’s.
The implication that Mueller offered his multiple summaries like dots he intended the attorney general to draw lines between could not have been received warmly by Barr. Maybe Mueller thought he was just helping out an old friend with whom he has socialized for years. But my guess is that implying that Barr needs help boiling down the complexity of a big report, even one approaching 400 pages long, probably stung the attorney general’s manhood like a colony of fire ants dumped into his boxer shorts. Evidence of Barr’s discomfort came last Friday when he sent a follow-up letter to members of Congress. In it, he promised a redacted version of the Mueller findings by mid-April, but also complained about the response by both the press and lawmakers to his original March 24 letter, saying they were “mischaracterizing” his statement.
Still another Mueller leak has sprung. Collecting from its own seep, NBC News reported today that some Mueller team-members “have expressed frustration” that Barr went too far in clearing President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice charges. There’s more to the story, NBC said. “Three government officials have told NBC News that a dispute within the special counsel’s office on the facts and the law was one factor behind Mueller’s decision not to make a call on the obstruction question,” the network reported. Evidence on obstruction is compelling, one official who has talked to Mueller team-members told NBC.
All of the cast members now seem to have assumed their pre-destined role in the Mueller report drama. Barr has summarized in his boss’s favor. His boss has screamed exoneration. And the publicity-shy Mueller team has finally shown a little leg to the press. On Thursday afternoon, Barr’s office was counter-retaliating, releasing a statement explaining that redaction of a confidential document like the Mueller report requires time and care. On Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee has donned full costume to play its part. In hopes of squeezing Barr into releasing the full Mueller report, the committee authorized Chairman Jerry Nadler to subpoena the Mueller report and all of the underlying evidence.
Today’s revelations come close to being an official leak, in which one governmental cog deliberately releases information designed to injure another cog or prod it to action. Seen from above, these first Mueller leaks look like the slow-moving slush of frazil ice, breaking up and accelerating as the warmth of spring’s thaw spreads. If Barr doesn’t hustle, the dribble of leaks could turn overnight into a freshet and wash him away.
Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel thinks the Times, Post, and Journal stories are bunk, surmising that “a couple of Democratic partisans on Mueller’s team are mad at Barr.” I don’t think so. Send your theories via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts once sponsored a pincer movement in which it and my Twitter feed put the squeeze on my RSS feed. My RSS feed, never defeated, vanished before the trap was sprung.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine