Down The Snitter — Barr’s Tenure and Handling of the Mueller Report
Letters, memos, reports — by now, what are these but mere words on paper begging for scrutiny by the pundits of MSNBC?
Just weeks ago, the redacted Mueller Report was released to the public. However, hours before its release, Barr held a press conference to discuss a report none in the press had yet been allowed to read. Not much value in holding a press conference then, right? Unfortunately, it was exactly what Barr had wanted.
Barr’s tenure at the Department of Justice has not been serving as Attorney General, but as Personal Protector for Donald Trump.
Of the many notable lines in the Mueller Report, one line, in particular, has been stuck in my mind. Speaking to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he refused to un-recuse himself, President Trump said:
“You were supposed to protect me.”
Trump seemed to think the job of Attorney General equated to a personal attorney, a protector who launched investigations into Trump’s political opponents. In fact, Trump’s strategy of launching counter-investigations is so obvious that when you google ‘investigate the investigators,’ the first result is the Wikipedia summary for the Mueller Report.
Since Barr seems to be doing exactly what Trump sought from an Attorney General, disrupting and protecting on behalf of the president, it’s important Americans take a closer look to understand just what Barr has done to lead us into this constitutional crisis.
A Curious Vocabulary
One would hope that an Attorney General is clear in his word choice, but, unfortunately, this has not proved to be the case.
Barr has two modes of speaking and cannot seem to find a balance between them: freewheeling partisan-hack and “masterful hair-splitting” as Senator Whitehouse said.
Gaining much popularity online, Barr had a heated exchange with Senator Harris before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When asked to answer yes or no regarding if the White House had ever suggested he open an investigation into anyone, Barr delayed, hoping to buy time.
After appearing flustered, wiping several seconds off the Democratic Senator’s limited time, he finally settled on the answer “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest’.”
Fair enough — perhaps the word ‘suggest’ has sensitive legal connotations and the Attorney General was being cautious. Senator Harris, former Attorney General for California herself, was happy to rephrase the question. Despite offering several alternatives words, though, Barr shrugged in his chair and eventually came to the conclusion “I don’t know.”
There was a legitimate reason to ask this question; the Muller Report noted that President Trump had asked Attorney General Sessions to open an investigation into Hillary Clinton. More recently, Trump has publically asked for investigations into former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Vice President/2020 candidate Joe Biden.
Nonetheless, let’s give Barr the benefit of the doubt and say that, unlike the president, he was being careful and considerate with his words and did not want to imply something that might have dubious legal or political implications.
If this is the case, how can Barr explain his use of Trump’s careless, highly suggestive vocabulary?
At Barr’s press conference before the release of the redacted report, he repeated Trump’s “no collusion” phrase. An astute legal professional like Barr, who was imperative about not using the word ‘suggest’ with Senator Harris, should know that, in the report he had just read and was about to release, Mueller makes a specific point in the first few pages about the reckless use of the “no collusion” phrase which has no legal meaning. Knowing this, repeating the highly political phrase at a press conference does not appear to be Barr’s considerate legal review of the findings, but a partisan attempt to spin the report before the press can read it for themselves.
Additionally, Barr sent shockwaves through the media when he announced to the Senate that, during the 2016 campaign, “spying did occur.”
In post-Watergate America, the use of the word ‘spying’ carries with it strongly negative connotations. Making such a damning accusation and not yet producing evidence is a problem itself, but the more revealing aspect is how it fits in once again with Trump’s personal, political messaging. The spying Barr is referring to relates to something Trump has been pushing called ‘Spygate.’
Google ‘Spygate’ and you will be given a disclaimer: it’s a “conspiracy theory by Donald Trump.” You are then directed to a brief summary reading:
“Spygate is a conspiracy theory initiated by President Donald Trump in May 2018 that the Obama administration had implanted a spy in his 2016 presidential campaign for political purposes.
This is uncharted territory. Repeating the president’s questionable rhetoric about the findings of the report is one thing, but repeating the president’s conspiracy theory as Attorney General is nothing less than dangerous.
In the interest of transparency, a famous quality of Trump’s, he waived his executive privilege to allow for the release of the redacted Mueller Report. But there’s a catch, he has now claimed executive privilege to keep the redactions hidden. This issue is just the next step in the neverending battle between the executive and the legislative branches, but it is also emblematic of the way the administration has handled the fallout of the report.
Similar to Barr’s use of the “no collusion” phrase at the press conference, Barr, having read the report before any other person, has repeatedly attempted to preemptively shape the public narrative before all of the findings are revealed.
Following the submission to the Justice Department of Mueller’s final report, regulations dictate that the report be given to the Attorney General who will decide how much to make public. This allowed Barr vast control in setting the tone of the national conversation.
Receiving the 448-page document on a Friday evening, Barr had already written a 4-page summary by Sunday afternoon. In his letter, he seemed to make several unilateral assertions.
Quoting the Mueller Report just once in the section detailing the findings regarding Russian interference, Barr selectively chose the following:
“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Choosing this quote gives the impression that Mueller does not believe there to be anything illegal about the actions of those on Trump’s campaign. Therefore, this mitigates the actions of, for example, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who was convicted of financial crimes and suspiciously shared private polling data with a former Russian intelligence officer.
Barr also explained that Mueller’s 22-month investigation would not come to a conclusion either way regarding obstruction of justice. But Barr, less than 48 hours after receiving the document, took it upon himself to clear Trump of obstruction just as he said he would months before Trump selected him for Attorney General.
Barr’s conclusions, not necessarily Mueller’s, therefore became the media narrative for the following days and weeks. Trump tweeted “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION” despite Mueller explicitly not exonerating him of obstruction. Democrats wondered for weeks if their expectations had been set too high.
Sure enough, Mueller’s final, redacted report was released to the public, but by then the damage had been done. FiveThirtyEight found that both Democrats and Republicans trust the findings of the Mueller Report, they just fundamentally disagree on what it says.
Democrats remain firm in their conviction that Mueller’s findings do not clear the president while Republicans saw “an uptick [in those] who said they had favorable views of Mueller after March 24, when Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary of Mueller’s findings.”
Moreover, they found “much of this change in opinion happened right after Barr’s summary was released — so far, making the full report public does not seem to have shifted opinions about the investigation nearly as much as the summary did.”
Mueller himself was even worried about Barr’s initial letter. Personal friends with Barr, Mueller still felt it important to write a letter, leaving an official paper trail, complaining to Barr about his assessment.
Mueller wrote that Barr’s letter:
“did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions”
Context, nature, and substance — that’s essentially everything. If you gave a book report and the teacher said it was great but that you just missed the context, nature, and substance of what the book was saying, you could be sure that you did not score well. This was Barr’s job, though; to give the American public an understanding what Mueller’s report said.
Furthermore, Mueller was worried Barr was undermining him. He explained:
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
To remedy this, Mueller asked Barr to release the summaries of the report which the Special Counsel’s Office had already prepared and submitted to the Department.
Barr never released them.
Now, Barr and the rest of the executive branch are daring Congress to enforce their subpoenas.
Unlikely to order the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest and detain several members of the cabinet and West Wing, Congress’ only other clear path forward is to ask the U.S. Attorney for D.C. to enforce the subpoenas. The slight problem is that this federal attorney works for the Justice Department. Suffice to say, it’s not likely the Department will act to charge its Attorney General. Only time will tell how this will end.
Between spinning the report, distracting the nation with conspiracy theories, stalling during congressional testimony, and undermining the Special Counsel’s work, this is not how an Attorney General committed to the truth would act. But, unfortunately for American democracy, this is exactly what we should have expected from William Barr, Personal Protector for Donald Trump.