Early last year, The New York Times published a meticulously reported piece about Donald Trump’s frenzied attempt to fire FBI Director James Comey, which succeeded, and to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which did not. In the flood of damning revelations, one fact stood out to me at the time: a frustrated Trump bleating, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Cohn, of course, was the conscience-free hitman who began his career aiding Senator Joe McCarthy’s destructive crusade against so-called Communists in government, who wound up, appropriately, as Trump’s mentor and fixer.
I thought perhaps Trump had found him, in Rudy Giuliani, but I was wrong.
One year later, Trump finally has his Roy Cohn, in his new attorney general William Barr. If you were paying attention, you knew the fix was in when Trump picked Barr: The former attorney general had already shared with the White House a memo arguing that a president cannot obstruct justice, since his powers to hire, fire, and redeploy staff are infinite. In an earlier stint as AG, under George H.W. Bush, Barr pronounced himself “subordinate” to the president in a 1992 interview. In his confirmation hearings, he refused to recuse himself from the Mueller probe, given his earlier advice to Trump that he couldn’t obstruct justice, and he didn’t promise to release the full Mueller report to the public when he received it.
Barr kept that promise, sitting on the 400-page report for three weeks, while quickly releasing a four-page letter exonerating Trump on charges of colluding with Russia and obstructing justice. Although Barr’s letter acknowledged that Mueller said he could not “exonerate” the president on obstruction, Barr said he and the deputy attorney general believed that the report in fact did so. Certain congressional Democrats and smart legal analysts suggested Barr had usurped a decision more properly made by Congress, but Barr disagreed.
Now that we have the redacted but still damning Mueller report, we know that Barr was lying. On the issue of obstruction, Mueller has essentially delivered materials that ought to move the House of Representatives to an impeachment investigation.
But before releasing the report, Barr delivered a disgraceful performance Thursday morning that essentially acted out his dishonest four-page letter and expanded on its ludicrous judgments. Though Mueller wouldn’t exonerate Trump on the obstruction charges, Barr did—with a bizarrely sympathetic nod to the “context” of Trump’s potentially obstruction. Allow me to quote it at length:
President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability.
Poor guy! Barr goes on:
There is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks. Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.
Mueller’s report doesn’t back that up, but here’s the kicker:
Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.
Read that again: “Apart from whether the acts were obstructive”—one has to insert the caveat “and they may have been!”—the fact that Trump was frustrated and angry exonerates him from obstruction charges. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called Barr’s performance “an extraordinary political commercial for the president.”
Within 30 minutes, Congress and reporters had the redacted report—and it was obvious that Mueller disagreed with Barr’s forgiving interpretation. Or to put it more sharply: It was obvious that Barr lied. Mueller found 10 separate occasions in which Trump might have obstructed justice, or tried to. Among the most egregious: He told White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller. He repeatedly tried to get former Attorney Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from the investigation and to also trash the investigation publicly. He directed Corey Lewandowski to carry similar messages to Sessions. He told deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland to falsely claim that Trump had directed Michael Flynn to talk to Russian officials. Mueller also said that lies by Trump associates to Congress and special counsel “materially impaired” the Russia investigation.
One bright spot for the president: In several cases, he did not obstruct justice, because his subordinates, like McGahn and Sessions, refused to carry out his orders. McGahn said he’d rather resign than commit what he compared to the Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre.” Mueller concludes: “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
This report does not exonerate the president; much of it reads like an impeachment referral.
Even on the question of collusion with Russians to hurt Hillary Clinton, it’s obvious that Mueller found deep and extensive ties between Trump associates and Russians inside and outside of government who were involved in hacking prominent Democrats. The report makes clear that Trump knew in advance about the release of some documents, that Donald Trump Jr. was in touch with Wikileaks via Twitter, and that other Trump associates had interactions with Wikileaks, Guccifer 2.0, and DCLeaks. Barr says conclusively that such interactions were not criminal, as long as there was no evidence that the Trump folks were involved in the crime of hacking. On Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians to gain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower confab, Mueller said he couldn’t prove that the president’s son “willfully violated the law.” One interpretation is that Trump Jr. wasn’t smart enough to know that seeking election assistance from a foreign power or foreign individuals was illegal.
On the obstruction question, though, it’s clear that Mueller thought the next step belongs to Congress—not to Barr. Because he says Justice Department precedent precludes indicting a sitting president, he did not believe he could reach a finding of guilt. But Congress can, he wrote: “With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” the report concluded.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must immediately rethink her repeated insistence that Congress will not pursue impeachment because Trump “isn’t worth” it. There are political risks—Republicans may maintain their slobbering devotion to the president—but it may be that justice requires it nonetheless.
“This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked,” Trump said after Mueller was appointed special counsel. For once, let’s hope he’s right.