This is one of those times. Special Counsel Robert Mueller gives the results of his two-year investigation to the new Attorney General William Barr. Two days later, Barr issues a four-page letter that is supposed to summarize Mueller’s findings.
The letter mentions that Mueller found a significant amount of criminal activity and referred several items to other officials for further investigation, but gives the impression that the president himself didn’t do anything wrong. The president and his supporters declare total victory. No collusion after all! Millions absorb the headlines. Media figures blame their colleagues for giving Mueller’s investigation too much attention, for misleading the public, for being too tough on the president.
But it’s bullshit.
First, consider who wrote the letter and who concluded that Mueller didn’t find enough evidence of obstruction of justice. William Barr is a Republican lawyer who delivered an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Justice Department and the president’s lawyers in June, in which he argued that Mueller’s inquiry into obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived”. Barr claimed that, given the nature of their authority, it’s extremely difficult for presidents to obstruct justice. He saw no reason to conclude that our current president committed a crime, even though the president tried in various ways to limit investigations into his own activities by, for example, firing the head of the F.B.I. Lo and behold, six months after Barr issues his memo, the president selects Barr to be his new Attorney General (after firing the previous Attorney General because he wasn’t sufficiently loyal).
Barr’s letter says another Republican official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, agreed that Mueller’s evidence was insufficient. But last May, Rosenstein wrote a memo that purported to explain why the president fired the head of the F.B.I. He claimed James Comey’s dismissal had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, even though the president admitted on national television that Comey was fired because of “this Russia thing”. Rosenstein now concludes that no obstruction of justice occurred, even though he played a questionable role in the president’s behavior that’s at issue.
Now consider the Barr letter itself. It helps a lot to pay close attention to the actual wording of a document like this, even though nuance doesn’t easily translate into headlines. My first impression was that Barr was making this argument. (1) Mueller didn’t find evidence that the President was part of a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government. (2) The president cannot be accused of interfering with an investigation if the investigation fails to find sufficient evidence of an actual crime. (3) Since we are not accusing the president of criminal conspiracy, we can’t accuse him of obstructing the investigation to see if said conspiracy occurred.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds fishy to me. But who knows? They say the law is an ass.
So it was good to see similar reactions to Barr’s letter. William Saletan offers a close reading of the letter at Slate. His article is called “Bill Barr’s Weasel Words”. Everyone who is interested in this fiasco should read his article. He highlights ten instances in which Barr’s language is suspicious or simply misleading. This may be the most important, since it underlies everything else:
“The Russian government.” … Mueller says his investigation didn’t prove that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The sentence specifies Russia’s government. It says nothing about coordination with other Russians. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, gave campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian associate who has been linked to Russian intelligence. Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met secretly in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer. But neither Kilimnik nor Veselnitskaya is part of the Russian government….
(There were more than 100 meetings between campaign officials and various Russians. Everyone in the campaign, including the president, pretended that none of these meetings occurred.)
Saletan’s main conclusion is that the letter doesn’t show the president to be innocent. Instead, it shows that Attorney General Barr defined criminal behavior in such a way that it didn’t apply to what the president did.
Another article worth reading was written by Neal Katyal, a law professor who drafted the special counsel regulations under which Robert Mueller was appointed. His article is called “The Many Problems with the Barr Letter”. Here’s how it begins:
On Sunday afternoon, soon after Attorney General Bill Barr released a letter outlining the Mueller investigation report, President Trump tweeted “Total EXONERATION!” But there are any number of reasons the president should not be taking a victory lap.
First, obviously, he still faces the New York investigations into campaign finance violations by the Trump team and the various investigations into the Trump organization. And Mr. Barr, in his letter, acknowledges that the Mueller report “does not exonerate” Mr. Trump on the issue of obstruction, even if it does not recommend an indictment.
But the critical part of the letter is that it now creates a whole new mess. After laying out the scope of the investigation and noting that Mr. Mueller’s report does not offer any legal recommendations, Mr. Barr declares that it therefore “leaves it to the attorney general to decide whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” He then concludes the president did not obstruct justice when he fired the F.B.I. director, James Comey.
Such a conclusion would be momentous in any event. But to do so within 48 hours of receiving the report (which pointedly did not reach that conclusion) should be deeply concerning to every American.
The special counsel regulations were written to provide the public with confidence that justice was done. It is impossible for the public to reach that determination without knowing two things. First, what did the Mueller report conclude, and what was the evidence on obstruction of justice? And second, how could Mr. Barr have reached his conclusion so quickly?
Mr. Barr’s letter raises far more questions than it answers, both on the facts and the law.
As headline writers suggest that everything is rosy in Trump World, and the president pretends he’s been the victim all along, we need to keep in mind that we haven’t seen the actual Mueller report, we haven’t heard Barr and Mueller testify before Congress, and we don’t know how the many other investigations into the president’s activities and associates will turn out. It is way too soon for anyone to hold a parade in the president’s honor. This isn’t the end, it’s just the end of the beginning.