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The Mueller report is coming, but with color-coded cuts

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 5 days ago By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
a man wearing a suit and tie standing next to a fence: Special counsel Robert Mueller walked past the White House on Sunday after attending St. John's Episcopal Church for morning services. Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation last week, delivering a report to Attorney General William Barr. On Sunday, Barr sent Congress a four-page summary of principal findings. © Minneapolis Star Tribune/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS Special counsel Robert Mueller walked past the White House on Sunday after attending St. John's Episcopal Church for morning services. Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation last week, delivering a report to Attorney General William Barr. On Sunday, Barr sent Congress a four-page summary of principal findings.

WASHINGTON — The most consequential editing process in the country is taking place behind closed doors in drab government offices.

Lawyers from the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office are going word by word, sentence by sentence through the nearly 400-page confidential report that Robert S. Mueller III completed last month, striking out tidbits as they prepare to release a redacted version to the public.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: US President Donald Trump answers questions from reporters before departing the White House in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2019. © Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS US President Donald Trump answers questions from reporters before departing the White House in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2019.

They’ve identified four categories of protected information and assigned different colors to each one to identify each cut or trim. For now, the four hues are as closely guarded as the report’s contents.

At stake is not just what information becomes public from the special counsel’s 22-month investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, but also the credibility of the entire enterprise.

Too many redactions or a botched process could deepen political uncertainty surrounding the Russia investigation and fuel concerns that Attorney General William Barr is deliberately shielding President Donald Trump from scrutiny.

a man wearing glasses: Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House subcommittee in his first appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill since releasing his four-page memo on the key findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2019. © Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House subcommittee in his first appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill since releasing his four-page memo on the key findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2019.

“It’s important that the public see it, and also that the public have confidence (that) what they’re seeing is the real thing, and not some partial facsimile of the real thing,” said David S. Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration.

Kris, a founder of Culper Partners consultants, said the redaction process could be “extremely frustrating” for officials reviewing the document. “I’m sure they’re feeling the pressure,” he said, “not only to do this well but to do it quickly.”

The process can be arduous, especially when multiple agencies are involved, but the effort appeared near completion over the weekend.

“When they have a deadline, they can get it done,” said Mark S. Zaid, a Washington lawyer who works on national security issues.

Trump’s lawyers have prepared a counter report to give the public a competing narrative to Mueller’s document. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who represents the president, said Sunday that the legal team was “polishing it up.”

Barr told a Senate panel last week he was surprised that Mueller’s report did not contain a vetted summary that he could quickly release to the public.

Instead, he said, every page carried a warning that it contained what he called “6(e) material,” a reference to Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which establishes rules for grand jury secrecy.

Officials said they would redact four kinds of protected information in the report, which is officially titled “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.”

They include grand jury evidence, classified material from U.S. intelligence agencies or allies, information about ongoing investigations, and details that could “unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”

That vague final category raised concerns that prosecutors could try to shield the White House from embarrassing new disclosures. But Barr promised a Senate panel on Wednesday he wouldn’t hide unflattering information about the president.

“I’m talking about people in private life, not public office holders,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Barr said he wasn’t consulting with the White House on what should be redacted, but he declined to say if he or his aides had briefed the president’s team on the contents. A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.

The report is likely to contain reams of previously unknown material. Barr wrote that Mueller’s prosecutors issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communications records and interviewed about 500 witnesses.

Mueller already has publicly unspooled much of his work in voluminous indictments, court filings and trial testimony since he was appointed special counsel in May 2017. But the only insight into his chief conclusions came in a four-page letter that Barr wrote to Congress on March 24.

Barr wrote that Mueller had not established a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government’s attempts to interfere with the election, essentially clearing the president of the darkest allegations against him.

Barr also said the evidence “was not sufficient” to determine that Trump had obstructed justice by trying to interfere with the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervised his work, concurred.

Mueller had not reached a conclusion on the matter. But he didn’t give Trump a clean bill of health, either, writing that, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” according to Barr’s letter.

Barr told lawmakers that Mueller’s report included a “fuller explanation” for why he didn’t make a decision on whether the president had obstructed justice.

Many of Trump’s most controversial actions were already known or occurred in public, such as his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017, his subsequent attempts to oust Mueller as special counsel, and his relentless criticism of prosecutors and witnesses in the investigation.

But Mueller included evidence for a potential obstruction case, and Barr’s letter implied some incidents had not yet come to light.

The relationship between Mueller’s team and Justice Department leadership will probably come under the microscope once the report is out.

Some members of the special counsel’s office reportedly were unhappy with how Barr characterized their work in his letter, and similar discord over redactions could cast a shadow over the process.

In addition, Barr caused alarm among Democrats last week by describing court-ordered surveillance during the early stages of the Russia investigation as “spying” on Trump’s campaign. He later clarified that he was concerned that unauthorized surveillance might have occurred, and was not declaring that it had.

His language echoed some of the president’s most explosive criticisms about the surveillance and revived Democrats’ worries that Barr was not a fair broker in the process.

Whatever redactions are made, it’s unlikely the report’s release will be the final word on what becomes public from the investigation.

House Democrats have prepared a subpoena they say they will use, if necessary, to force the Justice Department to hand over the full, uncensored document. Such a subpoena, if issued, would probably start a long court battle.

Barr has signaled his willingness to negotiate with Congress on what other information he could provide.

“I’m willing to work on some of these categories,” he said.

Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the author of books about the Watergate and Whitewater investigations, said letting lawmakers see the full document was crucial to ensure the redactions were handled appropriately.

“The only way we’ll ever know if this process worked is if Congress gets the whole report,” he said. “How can you know what’s redacted if no one else gets to see it?”

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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