Trump Still “Wins” The Mueller Report. So what’s the problem?
Painfully awkward moments in the Senate, as Attorney General Bill Barr did an unbelievable amount of “masterful hair splitting”, (as Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse put it), before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and defended a bunch of conclusions and actions that seem inordinately protective of the President.
All this against the backdrop of a newly-public letter from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to Barr, which states that Barr “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of Mueller’s “work and conclusions”. And, as a result, “there is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of the investigation”. (Mueller’s letter is actually a follow-up to an initial letter he sent Barr’s way the a couple of days before, expressing the same concerns). Barr colorfully and disparagingly called the letter “a bit snitty“, and dismissively speculated it probably wasn’t written by Mueller himself.
Here’s a full copy of the slightly more than one-page letter, which is signed by Mueller (click on it to see the whole thing):
A lot the sparring with Barr centers around what he means when he uses certain words. (Which frankly may be crucially vital to parse for legal purposes, but is generally pretty boring). Primarily, whether Barr’s initial public communication (a 4-page letter on March 24th), was a “summary” of Mueller’s report or a statement of “principal conclusions”, which is what Barr’s calling it. (And he has, in fact, gone out of his way not to call it a “summary”, perhaps in anticipation of this line of inquiry). To us, as we said at the time Barr issued that first document, it was neither. It was a description of the report. Like a middle-school book report. We said that primarily because Barr (strangely, it seemed to us), barely quoted directly from Mueller’s report at all. The main reason that’s at all important, is it allows Barr to contend he didn’t inaccurately or incompletely summarize the Mueller report, for the simple fact that he wasn’t actually summarizing it.
Barr also defended his use of the word “spying” to characterize counterintelligence operations the F.B.I. may have conducted within the Trump campaign. Barr insisted he doesn’t consider the word “spying” to be pejorative. Saying it’s “commonly used in the press to refer to authorized activity”, and “it’s commonly used by me.” First of all, while the latter part of that may be true (since we can’t see inside Barr’s mind and haven’t spent any time around him), it’s definitely not used by the media as an “everyday”, neutral word. (We certainly wouldn’t use the word “spying” to indicate anything other than something intrusive and clandestine, if not outright nefarious.) And there can be no argument it’s being used by the President to throw fireballs at Democrats and other political enemies, as well as the country’s entire intelligence apparatus. Barr feigning that he doesn’t damn well know that is ludicrous.
Especially since Barr seems very free and comfortable doing what we thought lawyers almost never do: that is, speak to other people’s frame of mind, especially other people who are not their clients. In Barr’s case he does this with Trump all the time; the President is not his client.
Barr’s most tortured acrobatics came when he was (repeatedly) asked why Trump’s demand that White House Counsel Don McGahn fire Mueller and then lie about it, did not constitute obstruction. (Even though Trump still denies he actually ever did that, it was substantiated in the Mueller report by at least two sources: McGahn himself, and former Chief of Staff Reince Preibus).
Barr gives one of the most convoluted answers possible, contending first that the President might’ve intended to remove Mueller for conflict-of-interest, in which case another Special Counsel would’ve been appointed, and with that fact in mind, the President maybe wasn’t actually ordering McGahn to fire the Special Counsel, just Mueller, which wouldn’t have necessarily constituted obstructing the investigation, and then when Trump told McGahn to say he hadn’t ordered him to fire the Special Counsel, he might’ve meant the Special Counsel per se, not Mueller, and in that light it might not have been correct to report he ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel, and so the President might not’ve understood he was “instructing McGahn to say something false. Because it wasn’t necessarily false”.
You follow? We’re not sure we do completely. Especially since McGahn’s response to the same series of events (according to Preibus, in the Mueller report) was lividly calling the President’s demands “crazy shit”.
Anyway, judge for yourself (click on the photo to watch):
Democrats also asked, reasonably, how Barr manages to conclude the White House cooperated fully, when Trump refused to agree to a one-on-one, sit-down interview, and his limited written answers were characterized by Mueller as inadequate (on page #417 of the full report).
Barr also firmly, nearly shouted “no” when asked if he would consider recusing himself from the ongoing investigations that came out of the Mueller team’s work.
Republicans used the opportunity to pick up the ball from the President who’s lately taken to blame Russian incursions into the 2016 Elections entirely on President Obama, despite the fact that his campaign was the main beneficiary of hacked information sourced back to Russia. Even if the campaign didn’t participate in obtaining that information, also didn’t see the need to report this activity to the F.B.I. And true, that’s legal, they didn’t have to. Republican Senators pretended to be phenomenally puzzled by the lack of action on Obama’s part, and did a lot of histrionic head-scratching, when to us, the reasons are really simple (and Trump is actually partly right about this, except his implication that it automatically make his campaign people squeaky clean):
- The Obama administration did not realize the extent or effectiveness of the Russian hacks until it was too late to stop them or their impact. (Yes, Russians have always attempted this kind of interference, but using social media and messaging platforms in ways they were not intended to be used was new, and profoundly effective, as Mueller’s report itself establishes).
- They worried that should they come forth with this intel–a lot of combatting this kind of crime has to do with publicizing it–they might themselves be accused of unfairly interfering in the election process.
- They (mistakenly) thought Hillary would win anyway, so why take that risk? (As true as this probably is, it’s also being pointed to by Republicans
At the end of the day, as lumbering and unconvincing and infuriating as Barr’s performance before the committee may have been, it does not change a thing. Other than maybe public perception. But then again, maybe not.
And that’s all because:
- Mueller did not reach a form conclusion or make a recommendation to prosecute, instead leaving it up to others. And Barr was the first to jump into that breach, defining others as himself when arguably it should’ve been Congress. Still, all this would’ve been so much easier if Mueller came down one way or the other. (And Mueller should’ve known better than to trust in any Trump associate to present his findings fairly to the public).
- Mueller did not insist on a sit-down with the President, which as we’ve pointed out before is SOP: Bill Clinton did, George W. Bush did. Even if Mueller has to subpoena the President to make that happen. But he didn’t.
Neither of those things are going to change anymore, ever. So what could’ve been a much easier, cleaner blueprint or guide is forever going to be what it is: lots of detail, not lots of actionable conclusions or calls to action (at least not while Trump is in office, and don’t hold out too much hope for after, either).
At best, it sets the stage for direct questioning of Mueller by Congress. It might even make that appearance absolutely imperative. (Some news organizations say the Justice Department is stalling on making this happen. During Wednesday’s testimony, Barr said a Mueller appearance is O.K. with him).
At the same time, why not release the full, executive summaries Mueller provided with his report. which were composed and cleared for public consumption, that he brings up in his letter to Barr? Why not let the American people see them? Not doing so will always forever make it seem to us the Attorney General is protecting the President ahead of the American public.