From the moment the Mueller investigation began to the moment Attorney General William Barr released his “summary” of Mueller’s labors, Donald Trump acted like the guiltiest man on Earth. His efforts to obstruct the inquiry were egregious, vocal and constant, his denials facile and unconvincing in their serial repetitions. His now-notorious Twitter eruption the weekend before the report’s conclusion was every inch the child frantically deflecting blame after pushing his sister down the stairs.
The third week in January of this year provided a perfect example of the phenomenon when it was revealed that Trump made a habit of confiscating the translators’ notes after every meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin before swearing the translators to absolute secrecy. This was unprecedented behavior with potentially staggering implications, and never mind the hypocrisy; had Barack Obama done something similar during his tenure, the outrage on the right would have been visible from space. With Trump, however, it was business as usual.
The announced completion of Robert Mueller’s investigation on Friday launched a 48-hour period of media mayhem not seen since a certain white Bronco was on the loose in California 25 years ago. Those who were expecting a detailed impeachment map to be immediately revealed endured a number of existential crises after exposing themselves to the television coverage. DEAR GOD WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN was the going media refrain, and no answers were forthcoming until the attorney general released his review on Sunday afternoon.
To the astonished horror of millions, Barr’s very short “summary” announced that Mueller had found no evidence of collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and agents of the Russian government. Barr further announced that the report contained no actionable evidence to support charges of obstruction of justice against the president. No new indictments would be forthcoming from Mueller’s end of the pool.
Only one scant sentence out of Barr’s entire four-page letter — “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” — serves to correctly note that Mueller did not exonerate Trump from wrongdoing. More ominously, Mueller’s office refused to endorse the conclusions reached in Barr’s letter. Perhaps they are playing it with their usual caution, but such an endorsement would have ended the discussion with a resounding thud.
After the initial shock wore off, anger flooded the feed. “Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population,” writes Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, “a group that (perhaps thanks to this story) is now larger than his original base. There will be people protesting: the Mueller report doesn’t prove anything! What about the 37 indictments? The convictions? The Trump tower revelations? The lies! The meeting with Don, Jr.? The financial matters! There’s an ongoing grand jury investigation, and possible sealed indictments, and the House will still investigate, and…. Stop. Just stop. Any journalist who goes there is making it worse.”
Much respect to Matt — I’m a definite fan — but this journalist is going there, because something reeks. If the moment arrives when crow must be eaten, I will devour my fair portion because it is the writer’s lot to say so when they have been wrong at the top of their lungs. We are not there yet, and Taibbi himself accidently explained why. “There will be people protesting,” he wrote. “The Mueller report doesn’t prove anything!” Here’s the problem: We are not talking about the Mueller report. We don’t know what’s in the Mueller report. All we have to go on is the word of William Barr, and speaking personally, that simply isn’t good enough.
William Barr’s first star turn as attorney general came when he helped George H.W. Bush and his people get away with literal murder in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal. Before re-taking the post under Trump, Barr wrote a detailed letter explaining how it is legally impossible for a sitting (Republican) president to obstruct justice, and even if they did, they cannot be prosecuted for it while in office. His treatise went a long way toward putting his name at the top of the nomination list after Trump fed Jeff Sessions to the wolves for the crime of doing the right thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
“It’s always interesting to me,” Trump said to Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo late last week, “because a deputy, that didn’t get any votes, appoints a man that didn’t get any votes, he’s going to write a report on me.” It does beg the question: How many votes did William Barr get? From where does the media’s absolute faith in the judgment of a lifelong partisan like Barr derive?
Are we expected to believe that Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone and all the others who were indicted or prosecuted have endured all that in the name of a presidential crime that was never committed? All publicly available evidence flatly states that collusion between Trump’s people and Russian agents was obvious and ongoing throughout the campaign. Those interactions appear to have not risen to the level of “conspiracy,” but again, we have only William Barr’s word on that. The obstruction to follow was equally egregious, played out in tweets, on rally stages and in friendly Fox interviews for almost two years. Once more, Barr’s interpretation is all we have to go on.
For all that, the coming weeks will be hard sledding for Trump’s opposition in the public, on Capitol Hill and in the corporate news media. That media, for their part, has done what they always seem to do: Chosen the easiest course of action — Barr said it, so it must be true — and commenced to eating themselves on live television. The Trump re-election campaign has its new slogan ready to go — NO COLLUSION LIKE WE TOLD YOU — providing us a perfect metaphor for the age: “See? I didn’t commit treason!” is Perfect Trump, the only catchphrase capable of capturing the nature of this debased and degraded age.
Trump’s allies are positively giddy now that Barr has weighed in and the media has chosen to accept his judgment on its face. Born-again Trump loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) ran wild at Mar-a-Lago on Friday night after the report came down with no indictments of Trump or his family. Pouring sweat in the pre-summer Florida heat, Graham raised the rafters as he (maybe) joked about Trump’s intention to build a hotel in Jerusalem and put former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) on the Supreme Court, presumably after Justice Ginsburg fulfills a million ghoulish dreams and passes away.
It’s going to be like that for a while and there’s little to be done about it, for now. Donald Trump isn’t acting like a man who has been vindicated. He’s acting like a man who got away with something and can’t quite believe his own good fortune. His pleasure may not last long; despite the short shrift paid to the other ongoing investigations into Trump’s dealings by Taibbi and other doubters, the fact remains that this story is far from over.
All who are currently retreating from Trump’s ongoing criminality like vampires thwarted by a cross should take a deep breath and remember:
- Roger Stone is set for trial in November;
- The Southern District of New York investigation into Trump’s payments of hush money via Michael Cohen is ongoing;
- Multiple state and federal officials are investigating the shenanigans that went into the collection of a record $107 million by Trump’s inaugural committee;
- The New York Department of Financial Services is investigating whether Trump illegally inflated his net worth to insurance companies per Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony;
- The New York attorney general is investigating Trump’s questionable dealings with Deutsche Bank;
- The Trump Foundation is under investigation for what that attorney general has called a “shocking pattern of illegality”;
- The New York State tax department is investigating Trump’s decades-long tax schemes;
- Federal and state investigators are looking into Trump’s hiring of undocumented workers;
… and on top of all this are the ongoing investigations by the House Intelligence Committee, the Judiciary Committee, the Oversight Committee, the Financial Services Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. As maddening as all the noise may be right now, the fact remains that Trump and his pack of lickspittles are doing their touchdown dance while a large chunk of time remains on the clock.
Something is badly out of joint. “Barr’s poor reasoning in the four-page summary will reinforce the conclusion that he prejudged the matter,” writes career federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti for Politico. “For example, he claimed that because Mueller was unable to establish that Trump was ‘involved in an underlying crime,’ that suggested that he lacked the intent to obstruct justice. That will come as a surprise to Martha Stewart and many other defendants who were convicted of obstruction of justice but not of any underlying crime. Simply put, that is a fragile reed upon which to support a finding that there was no obstruction.”
In every way that matters, the “Barr Summary” is meaningless. Robert Mueller’s full report must be released. By law, all 6(e) material will be redacted, but everything else needs to see the light. There is every reason to believe the report will eventually be leaked; in the information sieve that is Washington, D.C., it’s only a matter of when. Until that happens, the fight to make the report public will occupy the courts for many months to come. Speaker Pelosi and other House Democrats are already gearing up for that fight, and in the interim, all the other investigations will continue to grind on.
In the end, there is only one conclusion to reach in this moment: The day I trust the word of a hired flak like William Barr regarding the behavior of a lifelong liar like Donald Trump is the day I flap my arms and fly to the moon. Barr’s missive is merely another salvo in a disinformation campaign that has lasted two years. I don’t buy it. Neither should you. Trump has not been exonerated, and Barr himself said so. Until the full report is released and all the other investigations have run their due course, the crow dinner will have to wait.