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Mueller report: How much will we see?

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 4/18/2019 By John Wildermuth

The long-awaited Mueller report into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s possible links to those efforts was set for Thursday morning release. What we don’t know is how much of that report we’ll see.

Attorney General William Barr has already said parts of the report — grand jury testimony, classified material, details of ongoing cases and information about “peripheral third parties” — would be redacted, leaving the possibility that large chunks of the nearly 400-page document will remain hidden.

In Congress, even Democrats and Republicans who have fought over almost every aspect of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month-long investigation joined forces to try to keep that from happening.

In a three-page letter to Barr last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Tulare Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, demanded that Barr provide them with everything Mueller’s team collected, without redactions.

The investigation “is of surpassing national importance and public interest,” Schiff and Nunes, typically bitter adversaries, wrote. To fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibility, they said, the panel “requires full visibility into the special counsel’s office’s report, findings and underlying evidence and information.”

That full, unedited version of the report, which includes the results of nearly 500 search warrants, more than 2,800 subpoenas, 500 witness interviews and hours of grand jury testimony, is something that Barr has refused to say he would release.

During hours of often pointed questioning during his confirmation hearing in January, Barr would only say that he would “provide as much transparency as I can” when it came to the report, which was far from enough for Democrats.

“While I respect Mr. Barr’s past public service, I do not believe he will defend independent investigations from attacks,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said in announcing her opposition to Barr’s nomination.

It was not even clear exactly when Barr would release the report Thursday. He scheduled a news conference for 6:30 a.m. PDT, but reports Wednesday said Mueller’s findings might not be delivered to Congress until at least 8 a.m. PDT.

Democrats’ concern about Barr’s approach is a simple one, said Robert Weisberg, a law professor and co-director of Stanford University’s Criminal Justice Center.

“All the redactions may be entirely proper, but how do you know unless you know what was redacted?” he said. “If Barr says, ‘Trust me,’ I don’t think Democrats will go for it.”

There are potential problems with making every word of the report public, Weisberg said. By law, grand jury testimony is secret, with only the individual witnesses typically allowed to release information about what they said.

But it is legally possible to release basic facts about the grand jury process and background information. “A judge can do a little balancing,” Weisberg said.

Expect the Democrats to test that theory. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, already has a subpoena prepared that demands Barr provide the panel with both the unredacted report and evidence collected by Mueller’s investigators.

Democrats feared Barr had his thumb on the scale in deciding what to make public.

“He’s a professional, but he’s also a partisan looking to show Trump in the best possible light,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Democrats had their concerns about Barr even before Trump selected him to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general. In June 2018, Barr, then a private attorney, sent an unsolicited 19-page letter to the Justice Department, suggesting that Mueller was overstepping the bounds of his investigation by looking into the president’s conduct.

The memo “is very troubling,” suggesting that Barr believes the president is above the law, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in December. “There’s no reason for a lawyer in private practice to (write) this unless he was trying to curry favor with President Trump and convey that he would protect the president.”

The four-page summary Barr wrote on the Mueller report last month also infuriated Democrats, who complained that the attorney general bent over backwards to give the president every benefit of the doubt.

While quoting Mueller’s finding that his investigation “did not establish that members of Trump’s campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Barr also said he had determined that the evidence “is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

That’s despite Mueller’s finding that while the report didn’t find Trump had committed a crime, “it also does not exonerate him.”

For Trump, Barr’s take on the report was an undisputed victory for his long-running argument that the investigation was a partisan witch hunt.

“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” Trump tweeted after Barr released his summary. “KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”

Despite that, in recent days the president has returned to his attacks on Mueller and the report, setting the stage for Trump to argue Thursday that any suggestion of wrongdoing is only a sign that the Democrats are out to get him.

Expect a rapid response from the president after the report’s release. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for Trump, says the president’s team prepared a 30-plus-page rebuttal to Mueller’s investigation. The New York Times and Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had briefed the White House on at least some of the report.

“If the report was a total exoneration, why is the president preparing a rebuttal?” asked Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor. “Giuliani’s response suggests they’re expecting something less than total exoneration.”

Polls suggest that when Democrats call for a full, unredacted version of the report, they have the public on their side.

In a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, 60 percent of those surveyed said Congress should be given the full report, while 30 percent said the Justice Department should be able to redact information it considers sensitive before providing the report to Congress.

About the only thing guaranteed was that the report’s release would not end the battle between Trump and the Democrats over his purported connections to Russia.

What happens after Thursday? “In this crazy situation, who the hell knows?” Weisberg said.

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jfwildermuth

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