WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House lawyers held talks with U.S. Justice Department officials in recent days about the conclusions in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, aiding them in preparing for its release, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The release on Thursday of the report, albeit with passages blacked out, into the investigation of suspected Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election will be a milestone in Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
Democrats reacted angrily to news that White House and Justice Department lawyers had conferred ahead of its release, and complained about Attorney General William Barr’s plans to hold a news conference to discuss the report more than an hour before Congress or the public gets a chance to see it.
Barr will speak to reporters at 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT)along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017. But copies of the report will not be delivered to Capitol Hill until between 11 a.m. and noon (1500-1600 GMT), a senior Justice Department official said.
Democrats said Barr, a Trump appointee, would be trying to shape the public’s views of the report during his news conference before anyone had a chance to draw their own conclusions.
“The attorney general appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump,” U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler told reporters in New York on Wednesday night.
“Rather than letting the facts of the report speak for themselves, the attorney general has taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation,” Nadler said.
Nadler and four other House committee chairs issued a joint statement demanding that Barr cancel his news conference, calling it inappropriate.
The New York Times, which cited people with knowledge of the discussions, said the conversations had helped the president’s legal team prepare for the release of the report and strategise for the public relations and political battles that are certain to follow.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the New York Times report. Trump lawyers Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
When Mueller’s report is released, close attention will be given not only to potential new details on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and the question of whether the Republican president acted to impede the inquiry, but also on how much Barr elects to withhold.
Moscow denies meddling in the election and Trump calls the Mueller investigation a political witch hunt.
Barr is expected to release a redacted version of the report, but congressional Democrats could move forward quickly - as early as Monday - with subpoenas to obtain the full version.
The Democratic-led Judiciary Committee voted on April 3 to authorize Nadler to issue subpoenas to the Justice Department to obtain Mueller’s unredacted report and all underlying evidence, as well as documents and testimony from five former Trump aides.
A source familiar with the matter said Nadler could issue subpoenas as early as Monday. Nadler told reporters in New York the committee would have to carefully read the report “but on the assumption that it is heavily redacted, we will most certainly issue the subpoenas in very short order.”
The Washington Post, citing people familiar with the matter, reported on Wednesday that the report would be “lightly” redacted and offer a detailed look at the ways Trump was suspected of obstructing justice.
It will offer a blow-by-blow of his alleged conduct — analysing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the centre of Mueller’s inquiry, the Post reported. It will also reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the issue of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and some actions could be interpreted innocently.
Barr, who has broad authority to decide how much of the report to release, has promised to be as transparent as possible, but told lawmakers he would redact four categories of content: secret grand jury information, intelligence-gathering sources and methods, information relating to active cases and information could affect the privacy of “peripheral third parties” who were not charged.
Certain members of Congress will be able to see a less-redacted version of the report, Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a court filing on Wednesday.
“The Justice Department plans to make available for review by a limited number of members of Congress and their staff a copy of the special counsel’s report without certain redactions,” Liu said.
“The Justice Department intends to secure this version of the report in an appropriate setting that will be accessible to a limited number of members of Congress and their staff,” she said.
Barr is expected to testify on the Mueller report before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1 and the House Judiciary Committee on May 2.
The redactions, to be colour coded to reflect the reason they were omitted from the final report, have Democrats seeing red. They have expressed concern that Barr, appointed by Trump after the president fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, could black out material to protect the president.
Mueller on March 22 submitted to Barr a nearly 400-page report on his 22-month investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with Moscow to sway the election in his favour, and whether Trump committed obstruction of justice with actions to impede the inquiry.
In a letter to lawmakers two days later, Barr said Mueller did not find that members of Trump’s campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia. Barr said he determined there was not enough evidence to establish that Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice, though Mueller did not exonerate Trump on obstruction.
Since then, Trump has set his sights on the FBI, and accused the Justice Department of improperly targeting his campaign. Last week, Barr told a U.S. Senate panel he believed “spying” did occur on Trump’s campaign, and he plans to investigate whether it was properly authorized.
Reporting by David Morgan and Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Doina Chiacu and John Whitesides; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool