Despite the fact that William Barr had made public comments denigrating the Mueller investigation and clearly auditioned for the job with a spurious memo suggesting that it was almost impossible for a president to obstruct justice, he was confirmed as Donald Trump’s new attorney general with little difficulty. After what had happened with Jeff Sessions, it was understood that Trump would never again stand for an AG recusing himself from any investigation of the president. So everyone knew that Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election would be in the hands of someone who was unlikely to be an honest broker.
Nonetheless, most of us gave Barr the benefit of the doubt. I wrote about Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who had been a conservative supporter of Richard Nixon. He was coerced into taking the job by White House chief of staff Alexander Haig, who told him, “We need you, Leon” — assuming he would be loyal to the president. When Jaworski saw the evidence against Nixon, however, he was appalled and moved forward with the investigation. I thought maybe that could happen with Barr too.
I should have known better. Barr was a very political attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s administration, recommending pardons for all the guilty players in the Iran-Contra case, showing that he wasn’t going to be one of those weaklings who saw the Nixon pardon as setting a bad example for the country. I should have realized that this wasn’t a case of someone who’d spent too much time watching Sean Hannity and was slightly out of it. Barr’s been a rock-solid right-winger for decades.
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I characterized Barr’s initial four-page summary of the Mueller report as an elegant little political document and it was. It elicited exactly the response he and the White House wanted. He validated Trump’s slogan, “No Collusion, No Obstruction” while cleverly obscuring the fact that there is obviously much more to that story. After a couple of weeks of careful parsing and reconsideration of the implications by the press and various experts, Barr has now lost control of the storyline. He is promising to deliver the full report after he redacts whatever he deems necessary, but because of the game he’s been playing, there is no longer much trust that he’s acting in good faith.
Unlike Ken Starr’s investigations of the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, the Mueller team didn’t use friendly members of the press to pressure witnesses and try their cases in the court of public opinion. In fact they said nothing at all outside the courtroom. But now that the investigation is over and the attorney general has taken it upon himself to summarize their conclusions they have reportedly begin to express their distress about how he’s handled that.
Numerous news outlets have confirmed that members of Mueller’s team say that Barr has mischaracterized the evidence of obstruction of justice, which by all accounts is substantial.
They have also told associates that they carefully prepared summaries for different sections of the report, assuming they would be released to the public. Those summaries should not require all this concern from Barr about redactions. This certainly comports with many experts’ assumptions about how such a report would be organized. While Barr and the Justice Department are now saying that the summaries are labeled as containing grand jury and other confidential information, therefore requiring careful review and redactions, many professionals have suggested that’s just pro forma.
I think we all knew that the question of obstruction was going to be a problem for President Trump, simply because so much of it was happening right out in the open. But according to NBC News, it’s not just that issue that has the Mueller team agitated. The “collusion” case is also being somewhat misrepresented. The special counsel decided not to charge Trump or his campaign with conspiring with the Russian government in its election interference, but that is far from the whole story. Members of the team say that “the findings paint a picture of a campaign whose members were manipulated by a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation.”
I have long been willing to believe that Trump and his minions were simply so unethical, corrupt and uninformed that they were easy marks for the Russian election sabotage campaign. We know that they behaved idiotically when Russians approached them. Donald Trump Jr. writing an emails saying, “if it’s what you say, I love it!” upon hearing that Russian emissaries want to give him dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” is not the language of a sophisticated conspirator. It’s almost as if they were testing to see if Junior was even sentient. But that doesn’t get him or Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort or Donald Trump himself off the hook. This isn’t a game. Trump is president of the United States.
Trump and his team were almost certainly compromised by the lies they told about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. Trump knew that could be revealed at any time and his obsequious behavior toward Vladimir Putin the could easily be interpreted as bowing to an unspoken threat. Trump is conversant in blackmail threats, as we all know. We also know that he pays up when he deems it necessary.
Mueller found that none of this was prosecutable and it is vital we find out why he reached that conclusion. But to say that there was nothing there amounts to sweeping some of the worst judgment calls in the history of presidential campaigns under the carpet. And that’s really saying something.
These were outrageous decisions regardless of the criminal liability or lack thereof. I’m not sure if rank stupidity and reckless greed qualify as high crimes and misdemeanors but we should probably know the whole story before deciding about that. Even if Trump and his close advisers were suckered by the “Russian election interference activities” it’s quite clear that once Trump realized that the FBI and the intelligence community thought he might have done something illegal, he tried to cover it up. If that’s so, it’s not William Barr’s place to make the decision about criminal obstruction of justice. If the Department of Justice has concluded that it cannot charge a sitting president with a crime, it cannot clear one of wrongdoing either. It’s up to the Congress to decide what to do about Donald Trump. It seems as though the Mueller investigators agree.