WASHINGTON — Not all of Robert Mueller’s findings will be news to President Donald Trump when they are released Thursday morning.
Justice Department officials have had numerous conversations with White House lawyers about the conclusions made by Mueller, the special counsel, in recent days, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The talks have aided the president’s legal team as it prepares a rebuttal to the report and strategizes for the coming public war over its findings.
A sense of paranoia is taking hold among some of Trump’s aides, some of whom fear Trump’s backlash more than the findings themselves, the people said. The report might make clear which of Trump’s current and former advisers spoke to the special counsel, how much they said and how much damage they did to the president — providing a kind of road map for retaliation.
The discussions between Justice Department officials and White House lawyers have also added to questions about the propriety of the decisions by Attorney General William Barr since he received Mueller’s findings late last month.
Barr and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, determined that Trump did not illegally obstruct justice and said the special counsel found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia’s 2016 election interference. Barr told lawmakers that officials were “spying” on the Trump campaign, raised ominous historical parallels with the illegal surveillance of Vietnam War protesters and pointedly declined to rebut charges that Mueller’s investigators were engaged in a “witch hunt.”
Spokespeople for the White House and the Justice Department declined to comment. Barr, who plans to hold a news conference at 9:30 a.m. Thursday to discuss the special counsel’s report, refused to answer questions from lawmakers last week about whether the department had given the White House a preview of Mueller’s findings.
Much is at stake for Barr in Thursday’s expected release, especially if the report presents a far more damning portrayal of the president’s behavior — and of his campaign’s dealings with Russians — than the attorney general indicated in the four-page letter he wrote in March. That letter generated anger among some members of Mueller’s team, who believed it failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and have told associates that the report was more troubling for Trump than Barr indicated.
Justice Department rules do not require Barr to make the special counsel’s report public, and the attorney general’s defenders say he will fulfill pledges of transparency he made during his confirmation hearings to make as much of the document public as possible. Even a redacted report is likely to answer some of the outstanding questions about Russia’s attempts to sabotage the election, contacts between Kremlin intermediaries and the Trump campaign and the president’s efforts to derail the investigation.
The information that Justice Department officials have provided to the White House could potentially be valuable for Trump’s legal team as it finalizes a rebuttal to the Mueller report — expected to be released not long after the department makes the special counsel’s findings public. Trump’s advisers insist that they still do know many details about Mueller’s conclusions.
The president’s aides have devised a strategy whereby numerous lawyers and political aides will quickly read different parts of the document to develop a rebuttal strategy, according to multiple people briefed on the plan.
The recent conversations between the Justice Department and the White House were first reported by ABC News.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, armed with subpoena power and deeply mistrustful of Barr’s motivations since he was first nominated, have pressed for more and believe they could soon have the upper hand.
They have already demanded the full text of the report and access to the underlying evidence they say is necessary for continuing congressional inquiries into foreign influence and obstruction of justice.
The House Judiciary Committee has already authorized a subpoena for its chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to try to force Barr to hand that material over to Congress. Democrats involved in the planning say the subpoena could be sent to the Justice Department within a day of the redacted report’s delivery if Barr has withheld material the committee deems necessary for its work.
Promising more transparency, the government said it would let a select group of lawmakers see some of the material related to the case against Roger Stone that had been redacted from the initial public version of the report, according to a filing Wednesday in the Stone case. Stone was indicted in January for lying to federal prosecutors, witness tampering and trying to obstruct the special counsel’s investigation.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday he had little doubt that Barr was trying to “insulate” Trump.
“He has demonstrated that he understands loyalty to the president, rather than an oath to the Constitution,” Cicilline said, before comparing Barr to Roy Cohn, one of Trump’s former personal lawyers known for his fierce efforts to protect his boss. “The president said, ‘I want to have my own Roy Cohn,’ and he may have found him.”
Democrats in recent weeks have accelerated investigations of the president, his campaign, businesses and administration, issuing a flurry of subpoenas and voluntary requests that could aid their work. They intend to incorporate whatever they glean from Thursday’s report into those investigations, which they argue Congress has its own constitutional duty to conduct regardless of Barr’s conclusion.
Doing so could also allow party leaders to cool any potential heat within the party to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president — a possibility House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has repeatedly said would be politically unwise absent startling new evidence of wrongdoing.
Democrats concede that the real challenge will be to persuade Republicans and the broader public to keep focused on a case that the attorney general weeks ago essentially declared was closed.
The special counsel’s examination of whether Trump obstructed justice focused on whether the president used his position atop the executive branch to impede the Russia investigation. Mueller’s team examined Trump’s effort to end an investigation into his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and oust law enforcement officials — like the former FBI Director James Comey — who Trump believed were disloyal. Mueller also closely scrutinized Trump’s attempt in June 2017 to have Mueller removed.
A key witness in the obstruction investigation was former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who spent more than 30 hours with Mueller’s team. McGahn explained in detail how Trump tried to gain control over the investigation.
Trump’s legal team never thoroughly debriefed McGahn’s lawyer about what his client told investigators, leaving the president’s lawyers in the dark about what McGahn said. In recent weeks, White House officials have grown increasingly concerned about what McGahn told the Mueller team and believe his statements could be used in the report to paint a damning portrait of the president, two people close to the White House said.
Republicans have seized on Barr’s decision to clear the president of criminal obstruction of justice and plan to try to reinvigorate their own inquiries into decision-making inside the Justice Department and FBI in 2016 that prompted law enforcement officials to open the Russia investigation.
Barr gave ammunition to those efforts last week, when he described law enforcement surveillance of the Trump campaign as “spying.” The remark reinforced a narrative long pushed by Trump and his allies in Congress — that a “deep state” tried to prevent a Trump from becoming president and has tried to undo his presidency.
Barr’s comments sent shudders through law enforcement ranks and surprised many who saw him as a stabilizing force whose instincts would be to protect the Justice Department from political attacks — unlike former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Matthew Whitaker, who held the job in an acting capacity after the president forced out Sessions.