Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations. At stake in the dispute — the first evidence of tension between Mr. Barr and the special counsel’s office — is who shapes the public’s initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history. Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.
Mr. Barr has said he will move quickly to release the nearly 400-page report but needs time to scrub out confidential information. The special counsel’s investigators had already written multiple summaries of the report, and some team members believe that Mr. Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page letter he wrote on March 24 laying out their main conclusions, according to government officials familiar with the investigation. Mr. Barr only briefly cited the special counsel’s work in his letter. However, the special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials. Mr. Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation, according to two government officials familiar with Mr. Barr’s thinking. They pointed to the decision by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, to harshly criticize Hillary Clinton in 2016 while announcing that he was recommending no charges in the inquiry into her email practices.
The officials and others interviewed declined to flesh out why some of the special counsel’s investigators viewed their findings as potentially more damaging for the president than Mr. Barr explained, although the report is believed to examine Mr. Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation. It was unclear how much discussion Mr. Mueller and his investigators had with senior Justice Department officials about how their findings would be made public. It was also unclear how widespread the vexation is among the special counsel team, which included 19 lawyers, about 40 F.B.I. agents and other personnel. At the same time, Mr. Barr and his advisers have expressed their own frustrations about Mr. Mueller and his team. Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials believe the special counsel’s investigators fell short of their task by declining to decide whether Mr. Trump illegally obstructed the inquiry, according to the two government officials. After Mr. Mueller made no judgment on the obstruction matter, Mr. Barr stepped in to declare that he had cleared Mr. Trump of wrongdoing. Representatives for the Justice Department and the special counsel declined to comment on Wednesday on views inside both Mr. Mueller’s office and the Justice Department. They pointed to departmental regulations requiring Mr. Mueller to file a confidential report to the attorney general detailing prosecution decisions and to Mr. Barr’s separate vow to send a redacted version of that report to Congress. Under the regulations, Mr. Barr can publicly release as much of the document as he deems appropriate.
A debate over how the special counsel’s conclusions are represented has played out in public as well as in recent weeks, with Democrats in Congress accusing Mr. Barr of intervening to color the outcome of the investigation in the president’s favor. In his letter to Congress outlining the report’s chief conclusions, Mr. Barr said that Mr. Mueller found no conspiracy between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia’s 2016 election interference. While Mr. Mueller made no decision on his other main question, whether the president illegally obstructed the inquiry, he explicitly stopped short of exonerating Mr. Trump. Mr. Mueller’s decision to skip a prosecutorial judgment “leaves it to the attorney general to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” Mr. Barr wrote. He and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, decided that the evidence was insufficient to conclude that Mr. Trump had committed an obstruction offense.
Mr. Barr has come under criticism for sharing so little. But according to officials familiar with the attorney general’s thinking, he and his aides limited the details they revealed because they were worried about wading into political territory. Mr. Barr and his advisers expressed concern that if they included derogatory information about Mr. Trump while clearing him, they would face a storm of criticism like what Mr. Comey endured in the Clinton investigation. Legal experts attacked Mr. Comey at the time for violating Justice Department practice to keep confidential any negative information about anyone uncovered during investigations. The practice exists to keep from unfairly sullying people’s reputations without giving them a chance to respond in court. Mr. Rosenstein cited the handling of the Clinton case in a memo the White House used to rationalize Mr. Trump’s firing of Mr. Comey. Though it was not clear what findings the special counsel’s investigators viewed as troubling for the president, Mr. Barr has suggested that Mr. Mueller may have found evidence of malfeasance in investigating possible obstruction of justice. “The report sets out evidence on both sides of the question,” Mr. Barr wrote in his March 24 letter.
As sure as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, we all knew Donald Trump’s dalliance with transparency on Robert Mueller’s findings would come to a screeching halt once someone explained to him the difference between Attorney General William Barr’s 4-page hack job and Mueller’s 400-page-plus report. Now that Trump has learned those other 396 pages aren’t all dazzling pictures of him, he’s turning his ship around. Just two weeks after Trump was arguing for public release—”I don’t mind. … Let them see it.”—Trump minds. Trump has now gone from “it wouldn’t bother me at all” on March 25 to his Monday declaration that Democrats are “crazed” about the report and “it will never be enough.” So now the White House is demonizing Democrats for wanting to see the very report Trump repeatedly said should be made public over the last two weeks. Just wait for it, folks—very soon Mueller will go from having acted honorably, according to Trump, to being a demon worthy of investigation. That is coming just as soon as we start to get some kind of window into what Mueller really wrote. As House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff of California told CNN Tuesday regarding Trump and the Mueller report, “Clearly, he is concerned about that coming out.”
I am not a reporter and have not broken any of the stories Trump’s defenders are now trying to discredit. But I did write a long feature last summer tying together the body of reporting as it stood at the time into a narrative exploring the Trump-Russia relationship. That story placed me among Trump’s targets for revenge. But just as Trump’s defenders barely managed to discredit any of the reporting on the Russia scandal, they have not debunked the major conclusions in that piece. Having reread it in light of the ten months’ worth of revelations that have followed, I believe the story holds up extremely well. Indeed, subsequent events have vindicated its most important predictions and claims.
The story argued that the breadth and depth of connections between Trump and Russia suggested the scandal was probably worse than most reporters and pundits perceived at the time. The media was giving too much weight to the unlikely outcomes on one side of the distribution — that Trump’s relationship with Russia was completely innocent — and discounting unlikely outcomes on the other side — that Trump was very deeply compromised. “The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory,” I wrote. The most likely possibility, I proposed, was that Russia was exerting some kind of hidden leverage over Trump. The conclusion has proven completely correct. We now know that during the campaign, Trump was pursuing a building deal in Russia worth several hundred million dollars in profit, according to an indictment by Robert Mueller that Trump has not disputed. This deal created two forms of secret leverage for Vladimir Putin. First, the money was a powerful incentive for Trump to stay in Putin’s good graces. And second, since Trump was publicly denying that he had any dealings with Russia, Putin had access to secret information that he could use to embarrass Trump if he so desired.
The data we have seen since my story ran has largely bolstered its conclusion. Shortly after the piece ran, Trump flew to Helsinki and appeared strikingly and uncharacteristically submissive alongside Putin. The Washington Post reported that Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep his meetings with Putin secret from his own government, barring national-security experts and even personally confiscating notes on one discussion. Trump also made a series of oddly Russophilic comments, ranging from repeated attacks on NATO to calling Montenegro a “very aggressive people” who might attack Russia to justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In my story, I wrote, “It is possible that the current list of known campaign contacts accounts for most, or even all, of the direct cooperation. But that is hardly a safe assumption.” Indeed, Mueller’s indictments since then have added more incriminating evidence. Mueller found that Roger Stone was coordinating with WikiLeaks to exploit the value of Russia’s email hack, and that Paul Manafort passed detailed polling data on to a suspected Russian intelligence asset. (Neither man has cooperated with Mueller, and both appear to be banking on presidential pardons, a fact pattern that hardly puts all suspicions about their activity to rest.)
For nearly two years, Republicans stuck with their mantras: Robert Mueller was on a witch hunt. The FBI was some sort of liberal resistance haven. The Russia investigation shouldn’t have even begun. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions were part of the “deep state.” Everyone was out to get Donald Trump. The law enforcement community worries that the sudden shift in Trump’s rhetoric won’t soon erase the long-term consequences of Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI. Trump ran on law and order but unleashed an extensive campaign against the nation’s premier law enforcement organization. Republicans’ trust in the FBI plummeted as Trump and his supporters convinced the GOP base that the conservative-leaning FBI was biased against Trump. Federal prosecutors now contend with jury pools full of Republicans who think the FBI is corrupt. “It has been tough to watch,” said Greg Brower, who stepped down as the FBI’s congressional liaison last spring. “The FBI has taken some hits, mostly undeserved. It’s not good.”
Nevada’s top federal prosecutor under George W. Bush, said the FBI was generally a conservative organization “with a very small ‘c’” and that attempts to characterize the bureau as Republican or Democratic were “very misplaced, potentially very misleading, and just not accurate at all in my experience.” Trump’s attacks on the FBI “never made sense,” even for Trump’s own interests, Brower said. Had Trump taken the normal political approach to the Mueller probe ― saying two years ago that he welcomed the investigation, that he’s confident there was no inappropriate conduct, and that he looked forward to the investigation’s conclusion ― then he could now be credibly touting the Mueller report’s conclusions, he added. “He just took the wrong approach in every possible way, in my view, but mostly because of the deeply offensive, false accusations and characterizations of Bob Mueller,” Brower said. “It was beneath the dignity of the president. It was shocking.” Brower said he worried about the real-world impact of the president’s attacks when FBI agents testify in court. Even in places with a high level of skepticism of the federal government, judges and juries often take the word of FBI witnesses seriously, he said. “I’m afraid that, whereas FBI agents are able to ignore the background noise and do their jobs, ordinary people ― especially people that support the president ― have been unfortunately sucked into this view as propagated by the president that maybe the FBI can’t be trusted,” Brower said. “That is a very, very negative, destructive thing for the system.”
Brower said his own friends and family members have questioned him about the FBI, ranging from “polite questioning” to “flat-out assumptions of the worst” about the bureau’s work. “There’s just so much information, so many erroneous assumptions. Unfortunately, people who watch Fox News, they’ve taken those erroneous assumptions and false facts as true, and it becomes a reality,” Brower said. “It’s a challenge.” Tim Purdon, who served as U.S. Attorney in North Dakota during the Obama administration, oversaw a large body of atypical federal prosecutions: crimes like homicide, rape or child sexual abuse on Native American reservations. He’s worried what the drop in trust in the FBI could do in a red state like his, where a key trial witness is often the lone FBI agent who investigated the case. “Obviously, we’re a state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump,” Purdon said. “If you’re asking me if I wonder if the president’s constant denigration of the FBI as an institution and of individual FBI agents, if that might have some really tragic and horrific real-world consequences in courtrooms in North Dakota, I think the answer to that is yes.” Purdon said the view that the FBI is a hotbed of progressivism is completely out of whack with his own experience, echoing the description of the bureau as a “small ‘c’ conservative” organization. “I’ve met a lot of FBI agents. I met dozens and dozens if not hundreds of FBI agents. I don’t know if any of them were Democrats. I know for sure none of them were liberal,” Purdon said. “The idea that the FBI is some bastion of left-wing influence, to anybody who’s worked in the federal criminal justice system, is laughable.”
Politics is no longer about ideas, but rather about polemics and personality contests. People say horrible things to one another over the most mediocre of difference on social media, whether on principle or “for the lulz.” One can argue whether Trump himself is the cause of this plague or mere symptom. But there is no doubt he is the face of it. The idea of warfare as an extension of politics may be as old as Clausewitz, but the converse—where politics is an extension of warfare—is a dangerous one indeed. If we actually prize moderation and ideas in the public square, and if that elusive word—decency—is ever to return to our lexicon, it might be worthwhile to recognize that our principles are worth arguing for, and might even be worth defending, but they are not worth fighting for. Naturally, to stand apart from the mob is to invite its attentions. Yet above principles exists something better, namely the virtues that actually consist of American greatness. Wouldn’t it be nice if we fostered those values again rather than wallow in the muck of the mob?
To me, Donald Trump was more than the prototypical protagonist of a psychological novel—he was a fiction writer run amok, the hero of his own impermeable drama, resentful of editors who would prune his imaginings. He feels little need to heed advice, or to learn anything much from anyone. Most of what he says is provisional, ever subject to change, and based on nothing but his transient and subjective needs. But the crucial difference between Trump and a novelist is that his fancies are not confined to the page, and Americans can’t put them back on the shelf. Like any other best-selling novelist, I had publicists who helped me. But Trump has an army: the media, particularly cable news. In the run-up to his nomination, cable gave Trump $3 billion in free media—effectively, a sustained infomercial consisting of his rallies and rambling press conferences. This open microphone made him unique among all candidates.
Trump used it like a novelist would—to re-create himself as a fictional archetype, the lonely sheriff who drives the bad guys out of town. In his acceptance speech, he proclaimed, “I alone can fix it,” then amplified this in an inaugural address in which he portrayed himself as a gunslinger rescuing a cartoon country. He evoked a national dystopia: cities awash in carnage; sclerotic schools; shuttered factories; predatory nonwhites; the crooked denizens of swampland Washington. Like Gulliver amid the Lilliputians, Trump’s America was a helpless giant tied down by tormentors at home and abroad. But at last Donald Trump had arrived, the solitary symbol of salvation. Simply by virtue of his inauguration, the supposed carnage “will stop right here, and stop right now,” and “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more.” All the problems of a complex society, however exaggerated, would evanesce overnight. As Ernest Hemingway wrote to climax perhaps his greatest work of fiction, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
For millions of Trump’s followers, this fantasy world is too pretty to relinquish. Relentlessly, Trump has induced the sine qua non for any successful novelist: the willing—indeed, willful—suspension of disbelief. On some level, Trump’s followers know that he is lying, and choose not to care. For them, his false narrative is so emotionally enveloping that it sublimates truth to what Coleridge called “poetic faith.” He engenders this enthrallment by a classic fictional device: pitting himself, as the protagonist, against an imaginary world filled with pitfalls and peopled by antagonists who evoke fear, hatred, and contempt—the deep state, the media, Muslims, immigrants, minorities, freeloading Europeans—as well as fictionalized versions of real people such as Robert Mueller. In turn, Trump’s blustery pretense of intuitive expertise on subjects as varied as climate change, trade, counterterrorism, and geopolitics licenses the angry and insecure to spurn the expertise of a despised elite, whether they be economists, globalists, environmental scientists, in favor of bogus nostrums that corroborate what they wish to believe. By governing through seductive fictions, Trump has substituted fancy for objective fact as a basis for political discourse.
Watching this, I’m reminded of my writing mentor, a very fine novelist who called fiction “a collection of lies which are ultimately true”—by which he meant true to human nature. Trump’s lies are true to his deepest needs and those of his followers. Among them is Victor Davis Hanson, a conservative classicist and military scholar. In a New Yorker interview, Hanson describes Trump as the tragic hero of a classic Western—Shane, High Noon, or The Magnificent Seven. “They all are the same—the community doesn’t have the skills or doesn’t have the willpower or doesn’t want to stoop to the corrective method to solve the existential problem, whether it is cattle barons or banditos,” Hanson explains. “So they bring in an outsider, and immediately they start to be uneasy because he is uncouth—his skills, his attitude—and then he solves a problem, and they declare to him … ‘We don’t need you anymore.’” For millions, Trump’s alternative reality is now a source of comfort and escape, a balm that simplifies a harsh and complex world, the gateway to an America that never was or will be. The question now is who will write its final chapter—and whether Trump’s fantasy of self will end in catharsis or in tragedy.