- Washington flew into a frenzy last week after multiple media outlets reported that prosecutors working for the special counsel Robert Mueller were dissatisfied with the way Attorney General William Barr portrayed their findings in the Russia investigation.
- Prosecutors’ reported decision to break their silence speaks volumes, given that Mueller ran one of the tightest ships in Washington for the past two years.
- Mueller’s office spoke out publicly just twice during the investigation: to comment on a GOP scheme meant to discredit the special counsel with false allegations of sexual misconduct and to dispute an explosive BuzzFeed News story in January.
- “If prosecutors are concerned that their conclusions may be obscured or misrepresented – and if they’re worried enough that they’re talking about it to other people – that’s something everyone needs to take seriously, regardless of whose side you’re on,” one former White House official told INSIDER.
Last week, Washington spun into a frenzy after The New York Times reported that members of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team were upset with Attorney General William Barr’s characterization of their findings in the FBI’s Russia investigation and that they believed their final report to be more damaging to President Donald Trump than Barr indicated.
Trump’s supporters and many in conservative media immediately derided The Times’ reporting, which was matched by The Washington Post and NBC News.
Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, accused Mueller’s team of leaking to the media to “smear” the president.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lead defense lawyer, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that The Times’ report was “absolutely disgraceful.”
“The real wrongdoing are the prosecutors who just leaked,” he added. “I thought Mueller didn’t leak.”
Giuliani was partially right: Mueller doesn’t leak.
That’s why it speaks volumes that prosecutors took the unprecedented step of expressing their simmering frustration with the attorney general to government officials and others cited in last week’s media reports.
- (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Prosecutors stayed mum as Trump and his allies waged an all-out public-relations war
For the past two years, Mueller ran the tightest ship in Washington, DC, as he and his team of prosecutors spearheaded one of the most politically explosive investigations in modern US history: whether the sitting president or members of his campaign conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 election and whether the president later sought to obstruct justice after learning of the investigation’s existence.
The special counsel’s team was so close-lipped that it forced journalists and the public to get creative to discern what Mueller was up to.
CNN set up a “stakeout team” to monitor who came and went from Mueller’s office. Multiple media outlets had reporters milling around the Washington and New York federal courthouses (where most of Mueller’s cases are being adjudicated) for signs of unusual courtroom activity.
The public learned about a mysterious grand-jury subpoena fight between Mueller’s team and an unknown foreign corporation after a Politico reporter overheard a defense lawyer for the company asking a courthouse clerk for a filing.
When the media reported on who Mueller was planning to interview or who had just testified before his grand jury, the reports were based on conversations with those witnesses and their lawyers. Mueller’s prosecutors always declined to comment.
Even as Trump and his loyalists mounted a largely one-sided public relations war against Mueller, he stayed mum. Instead, the special counsel spoke only through lengthy indictments and court filings that intricately detailed allegations against Trump associates, Russian nationals, and other players embroiled in the investigation.
Read more: After reports indicate Mueller’s team was annoyed with the attorney general’s summary of their work, the Justice Department says the Mueller report can’t be released yet because every page contains confidential information
- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Why it matters
Mueller’s office publicly broke its silence just twice during the investigation.
In October, the special counsel’s office released a statement revealing it had asked the FBI to investigate a GOP scheme to discredit Mueller using false allegations of sexual misconduct.
And in January, Mueller’s team took the rare step of publicly disputing an explosive BuzzFeed News story about Trump and Michael Cohen.
Legal scholars didn’t mince words when they addressed the seriousness of Mueller’s move in both cases.
“Difficult to parse each and every word here, but it is extremely unusual for the Special Counsel’s office to issue a statement disputing a story and should be taken very seriously,” the former National Security Agency lawyer and Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey wrote.
Matthew Miller, who served as a Justice Department spokesman under President Barack Obama, echoed that view.
“You can spend hours parsing the Carr statement,” Miller wrote, referring to the Mueller team spokesman Peter Carr, “but given how unusual it is for any DOJ office to issue this sort of on the record denial, let alone this office, suspect it means the story’s core contention that they have evidence Trump told Cohen to lie is fundamentally wrong.”
One former White House official who was involved in the Mueller investigation told INSIDER the public should approach prosecutors’ decision to express their frustration with Barr with the same seriousness, if not more, given what’s at stake now.
“Previous Mueller statements were significant but weren’t directly connected to his findings in the Russia probe,” the former White House official told INSIDER. “What we’re talking about now is the final report, this 400-page document that lays out everything the special counsel did or did not find as he investigated whether President Trump acted as an agent of the Russian government.”
“If prosecutors are concerned that their conclusions may be obscured or misrepresented – and if they’re worried enough that they’re talking about it to other people – that’s something everyone needs to take seriously, regardless of whose side you’re on,” the former official added.