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A Rorschach test in which one side urges people not to look at the inkblot

04/19/19 10:35AM

The Justice Department released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report yesterday morning, and just minutes later, Donald Trump was all smiles. The president said at a White House event:

"I'm having a good day, too. It was called, 'No collusion. No obstruction.' There never was, by the way, and there never will be."

To the extent that reality has any meaning, the boast didn't make sense. The report, which Trump did not read, painted an incredibly damaging picture of a president who lied, encouraged others to lie, took repeated steps to undermine a federal investigation, and has overseen a dysfunctional and corrupt operation that had "numerous links" with Russian attackers who targeted our elections to put him in power.

There was no reason to pretend this was "a good day."

But it was just the start of an elaborate exercise in make-believe. The White House issued an official written statement, ostensibly written by Vice President Mike Pence, that said the Mueller report "confirms" Trump's earlier claims. The president's re-election campaign issued a similar statement, insisting that the president had been "fully and completely exonerated" by the report:

Kellyanne Conway, who somehow managed to keep a straight face, described the release of the devastating report as "really the best day since" Trump's election in 2016. The White House counselor added, "We're accepting apologies today, too, for anyone who feels the grace in offering them."

Apologies for what, Conway didn't say. Perhaps it's supposed to be obvious that, in Trump World's bizarre alternate reality, the president should be seen as a victim.

It's tempting to describe the Mueller report as a political Rorschach test, with different groups of people looking at the same image, but seeing entirely different things.

There is, however, a problem with the analogy -- because one side of the argument needs people not to look at the inkblot at all.

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William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.

Bill Barr's standing as AG may never be the same

04/19/19 10:00AM

For nearly a month, much of the political world acted as if they knew all they needed to know about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report -- not because they'd seen the document, but because they were willing to accept Attorney General Bill Barr's claims at face value.

At one point, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested he wasn't eager to read the actual Mueller report, in part because his trust in Barr was so complete, and in part because he didn't share Democrats' "paranoia" surrounding the controversy.

This was not an uncommon perspective. After the attorney general's original non-summary summary, the White House, Republicans, and even many in media acted as if the entire Russia scandal had instantly evaporated. Barr had exonerated Donald Trump, and it was incumbent upon all of us to simply accept that as fact.

Those who did made a mistake. As the Washington Post reported:

Before the special counsel's report on Russia and President Trump was released to the public, Attorney General William P. Barr made several statements about what was in its 448 pages.

Barr received special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report last month and outlined its principal conclusions in a letter dated March 24. Barr then held a news conference on Thursday, shortly before releasing a redacted version of Mueller's report.

As it turns out, in some cases, Barr's characterizations were incomplete or misleading.

Since yesterday afternoon, several outlets have published very compelling pieces, offering extensive details contrasting what the attorney general claimed and what turned out to be true. Each of these pieces paint a damning picture, and they're worth your time.

But stepping back, I'm also interested in what happens now.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Why Trump's written answers to Mueller were deemed 'inadequate'

04/19/19 09:30AM

For reasons that aren't yet clear, Attorney General Bill Barr assured the public yesterday morning that Donald Trump's White House "fully cooperated" with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. We soon after learned that the opposite is true, though even at the time, the claim didn't make a lot of sense.

If the president was willing to "fully" cooperate, wouldn't he have agreed to answer investigators' questions?

We learned in the Mueller report that investigators considered a subpoena to compel Trump to answer questions, but they ultimately passed, concluding that the legal fight would create excessive delays in the probe. The special counsel's office instead agreed to a written Q&A with the president.

As the Washington Post noted, it didn't go especially well.

They covered four primary topic areas: the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, the Russian effort to interfere with the election, the proposed development project in Moscow and contacts with Russia or Russia-related issues during the campaign and transition. In total, the Mueller team asked 38 distinct questions with 37 follow-ups.

Trump offered 22 distinct answers. In 19 of those answers, he claims not to remember or recall some particular issue. Often, those failures to remember what happened constitute the entirety of his response.

Questions related to obstruction of justice weren't answered at all.

The Mueller report noted, in reference to Trump's responses, "We viewed the written answers to be inadequate." Imagine that.

But to appreciate what makes this even more amazing, it's worth revisiting how proud the president was in his answers.

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Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., leaves a closed-door GOP caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 14, 2014.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's GOP chair has some explaining to do

04/19/19 09:00AM

It's easy to forget that the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the Russia scandal is ongoing. The probe doesn't generate a lot of attention or drama, but it's been quietly proceeding in the background, and it's likely the committee's members will eventually release some kind of report on their findings.

But while we wait, there are some fresh questions surrounding the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). As NBC News reported yesterday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report noted that the senator apparently provided the White House with information on the Russia investigation after a private briefing with then-FBI Director James Comey.

Within a week of Comey briefing the "Gang of Eight" congressional leaders about the FBI's Russia probe in March 2017, Mueller wrote that then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn's office was in contact with the North Carolina Republican "and appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigation."

As Mueller notes, it's unclear if Trump was aware of the briefing at the time. But Annie Donaldson, who served as McGahn's chief of staff, wrote then that "POTUS in panic/chaos ... Need binders to put in front of POTUS. (1) All things related to Russia."

According to Donaldson's notes, which Mueller referenced, McGahn's office was briefed by Burr "on the existence of '4-5 targets.'" It was not clear if Donaldson was present for that briefing, or was simply taking notes on something she had heard.

A spokesperson for the North Carolinian said in a statement that Burr doesn't recall the conversation, adding, "[H]owever, any conversations between the two would have been in reference to the need for White House personnel to voluntarily comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation. If specific individuals were discussed, they would have been those known to the Committee, the White House, and the media. The Chairman's stewardship over the Committee's bipartisan and fact-based investigation over the last two years speaks for itself."

Well, maybe.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

Sarah Sanders' credibility reaches the point of no return

04/19/19 08:30AM

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been caught saying untrue things many times, but she's often relied on a convenient excuse. "We give the best information that we have at the time," has long been a go-to line for Donald Trump's chief spokesperson.

The subtext, which has never been especially subtle, has always been that Sanders doesn't necessarily lie, so much as she's lied to. When the White House press secretary passes along information that proves to be false, it's not her fault if she's merely a conduit for others' falsehoods.

This defense won't help Sanders when responding to her latest mess.

On May 10, 2017, Sarah Sanders, then the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters that "countless" FBI agents had told the White House that they had lost confidence in James Comey, who had been fired as FBI director the day before by President Donald Trump.

But special counsel Robert Mueller's report, released Thursday, says that she simply made the assertion up.

The report says Sanders, since promoted to press secretary, told investigators she had no evidence to make that claim.

It was not the only example of the Mueller report shining a light on deceptions from one of Trump's press secretaries, but it was the most dramatic instance -- in large part because Sanders effectively admitted to investigators that she made up her claim.

The presidential spokesperson would probably face an unpleasant grilling if she still hosted routine press briefings, but instead, Sanders turned to Fox News' Sean Hannity last night and said she had "a slip of the tongue."

As a rule, that's reserved for routine slip-ups, such as saying "Iran" when one meant to say "Iraq." Making up conversations with FBI officials, in order to justify the improper firing of an FBI director, is generally something altogether different.

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Where the Mueller report and the boiling frog meet

04/19/19 08:00AM

The New York Times published an interesting overview of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, which included a notable challenge to readers: "Imagine reading this report cold."

Prosecutors describe a president who was preoccupied with ending a federal investigation, a White House that repeatedly told misleading and changing stories, and a presidential campaign that was in repeated contact with Russian officials for reasons that are not always clear.

Even though prosecutors concluded that didn't amount to provably criminal conduct, the report is astounding in its sweep. Yet it is also a reminder of how much the public has learned over the past two years about Mr. Trump's conduct.

If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating. The consequences of the report remain to be seen, but if people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr. Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized.

It brings us back to the cruel fable about boiling a frog, which came to the fore shortly after Mueller first submitted his findings to Attorney General Bill Barr.

The idea, as regular readers may recall, is straightforward: if someone were to throw a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock would be immediate and the frog would leap out.

But if the frog is placed in tepid water, and the temperature increased gradually, the frog would slowly acclimate to the hotter temperatures -- until it's too late.

Putting aside whether the fable is true, it offers some parallels to the revelations surrounding the Russia scandal. Reading the Mueller report yesterday, some of the disclosures were familiar because we'd learned of them before, by way of investigative reporting from major news organizations.

Despite the recent wave of condemnations about "the media" getting the Russia scandal wrong, journalists actually got nearly all of the story right. Coverage the White House condemned as "fake news" has since been corroborated.

For Donald Trump and his followers, the fact that the special counsel didn't indict the president effectively ends the conversation. The scandal was a mirage, they say, and those who took it seriously fell for a "hoax."

To believe this is plainly absurd, but it's also evidence of people who've chosen to play the role of the frog.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.18.19

04/18/19 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* That sounds about right: "Had President Donald Trump been left to his own devices, the findings in special counsel Robert Mueller's report released Thursday would have likely been far more damning for him."

* The opposition: "Congressional Democrats on Thursday highlighted portions of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign that appeared to contradict President Donald Trump's assertion that it represents 'total exoneration,' pointing to examples within the document that they said demonstrate that the president had obstructed justice."

* We don't yet know if Mueller will accept the invitation: "House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called on special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before his committee 'no later than May 23.'"

* AMI sold Trump's favorite tabloid for $100 million: "The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid linked closely to President Donald Trump, has been sold to newspaper retailer James Cohen, both sides announced Thursday."

* Rick Perry's future: "The Department of Energy on Wednesday night denied a report that Rick Perry is planning to leave his position as secretary of the agency."

* NAFTA 2.0: "President Trump's new North American trade deal will have an almost imperceptible effect on the U.S. economy, boosting the $20 trillion economy by just 0.35 percent and giving an even smaller jolt to the labor market, according to an independent expert analysis by the International Trade Commission."

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Remember all the times Trump denied he was under investigation?

04/18/19 04:11PM

For much of his presidency, Donald Trump has seemed preoccupied with whether he was personally under investigation -- and telling people that he wasn't. In November 2017, for example, he declared, "As far as I'm concerned, I haven't been told that we're under investigation, I'm not under investigation."

The phrasing remains entertaining -- as far as Trump is "concerned," all kinds of fictional claims may seem true -- but it was part of a series of related comments. As recently as August 2018, the president told the Wall Street Journal, "Of course they say it's not an investigation. You know, in theory I'm not under investigation."

I'm still not sure what any of that was supposed to mean, exactly, but reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, there can be no doubt that Trump became only the third sitting president to face a criminal investigation while in office. From the document:

Although the series of events we investigated involved discrete acts, the overall pattern of the President's conduct towards the investigations can shed light on the nature of the President's acts and the inferences that can be drawn about his intent. In particular, the actions we investigated can be divided into two phases, reflecting a possible shift in the President's motives

The first phase covered the period from the President's first interactions with Comey through the President's firing of Comey. During that time, the President had been repeatedly told he was not personally under investigation. Soon after the firing of Comey and the appointment of the Special Counsel, however, the President became aware that his own conduct was being investigated in an obstruction-of-justice inquiry.

At that point, the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.

All of this is clearly quite relevant to the obstruction allegations -- when a sitting president encourages witnesses not to cooperate with an investigation in which he's the subject, there's a problem -- though it's also worth acknowledging that when Trump told the public he wasn't under investigation, he was lying.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Mueller report details Trump's efforts to undermine Russia scandal probe

04/18/19 03:02PM

As you've probably heard, the Justice Department released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report late this morning, and while it's impossible to summarize a 448-page document in two sentences, this Associated Press report struck me as quite compelling.

Public at last, special counsel Robert Mueller's report revealed to a waiting nation Thursday that President Donald Trump tried to seize control of the Russia probe and force Mueller's removal to stop him from investigating potential obstruction of justice by the president.

Mueller laid out multiple episodes in which Trump directed people around him to try to influence or curtail the Russia investigation after the special counsel's appointment in May 2017.

Broadly speaking, we're dealing with an investigation that explored three central questions: did Russia attack American elections, did our adversaries have partners in Donald Trump's political operation, and did Trump obstruct the investigation into what transpired.

The first question appears to have been answered in definitive fashion. Literally, the second sentence of the Mueller report says, "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." It's a detail the Republican president has never acknowledged, at least not publicly, and it's an assessment that skeptics of the Russia scandal have long resisted, but by fair measure, the debate over this has run its course.

On a related note, the Mueller report went on to note that the investigation "established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome." That, too, is a fairly obvious detail that both the president and other skeptics of the scandal have long resisted.

On the second question, related to possible cooperation between the Russian attackers and the campaign they were determined to help, the Mueller report also noted Trump's political operation "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

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