Democrats were incensed when former FBI Director James B. Comey went public during the 2016 campaign with his conclusion that Hillary Clinton had been “extremely careless” in handling classified information. He made that judgment even as he declined to recommend that Clinton be criminally charged in connection with the private email server on which she transacted State Department business.
But if Comey’s statement was wrong, wouldn’t it also be unfair for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to issue a public report about his investigation of Donald Trump if he concluded the president hadn’t committed a crime? Or for the Justice Department to do so?
Democrats don’t seem to think so. At Senate confirmation hearings this week for William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee pressed Barr not only on whether he would let Mueller finish his job — Barr promised he would — but also on whether he would release the special counsel’s report or allow it to be edited by the administration.
On Tuesday, Barr seemed to hedge his earlier assurance that “it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work.”
By “results,” Barr apparently didn’t mean the full text of Mueller’s report to the attorney general.
Responding to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who was passing along a question from the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee), Barr said: “I’m going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations that are part of the special-counsel regulations.” He also noted that Mueller’s report would be confidential, whereas the report that “goes public” would come from the attorney general.
These distinctions didn’t seem to impress Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. On Wednesday, she said: “This is a big report, and the public needs to see it, and with the exception of very real national security concerns, I don’t even believe there should be very much redaction. So, I am hopeful that that report will be made public, and my vote depends on that.” She didn’t qualify that statement by saying the report should be released only if Mueller concluded that Trump colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.
She’s right. Even if it comes wrapped inside a report by Barr, Mueller’s conclusions should see the light of day — even if Mueller concludes the president didn’t obstruct justice or violate the law in any dealings with Russia.
How can that be squared with the notion that Comey overreached in publicizing his conclusions about Clinton’s “extremely careless” conduct?
First, Trump is the president of the United States, and the questions Mueller has been investigating have transfixed the nation for most of his time in office. They need to be ventilated.
Second, as was not the case with the Clinton email investigation, Trump has apparently been investigated not only for possible criminal wrongdoing but also as part of a counterintelligence operation aimed at determining whether he was a witting or unwitting agent of Russia. (The Clinton email investigation had a less significant counterintelligence angle involving whether her email server had been accessed by hostile foreign actors. The FBI concluded that such penetration was possible.)