All Attorney General Bill Barr had to do was release Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. That’s it. Donald Trump’s handpicked attorney general could’ve simply let the document, its findings, and its conclusions speak for themselves.
But that apparently wasn’t good enough for Barr. Instead, the attorney general scheduled a press conference to discuss the report, hours before the release of a redacted version of the document, to effectively pre-spin what the Republican lawyer wants the public to believe about Mueller’s findings.
The result was a bizarre spectacle in which the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, whose credibility and political independence have already been called into question, positioned himself as a defense attorney for the president who appointed him.
Consider this excerpt from Barr’s prepared remarks, in which he seemed to justify his conclusion that Trump didn’t cross the legal line into obstruction of justice.
“In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. 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. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.
“And as the special counsel’s report acknowledges, 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, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.”
I’m at a loss as to how anyone could take this seriously. Trump may have obstructed justice, but it’s all right because he felt “frustrated and angered”? There was “relentless speculation in the news media,” so we should shrug our shoulders in response to evidence of the president’s alleged misconduct?
As for the idea that the White House “fully cooperated” with the investigation, and the president “took no act” to deprive investigators of access to witnesses, Barr conveniently overlooked the fact that Trump himself refused to be interviewed.
The president also publicly dangled pardons and publicly criticized the very idea of witnesses cooperating with law enforcement.
Barr went on to note that there were 10 “episodes” involving the president of potential obstruction, but the attorney general “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”
Of course, Barr is the same Republican lawyer who, before getting the job, wrote a lengthy and unsolicited memo that excoriated Mueller’s investigation into obstruction in the first place.
Stepping back, when the attorney general issued his original, four-page memo last month, he seemed to be going out of his way to frame the Mueller report in a way that was favorable to the White House, before anyone had an opportunity to evaluate the document for themselves. Today, he did the exact same thing, positioning himself as an extension of Trump’s political messaging operation.
NBC News’ Ken Dilanian said Barr’s remarks amounted to “a White House press release.” Even Fox News’ Chris Wallace added that Barr “seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the attorney general.”
I imagine Barr’s goal was to lay the groundwork for the Mueller report’s release, shaping public expectations before anyone could draw their own conclusions. It backfired: after this strange spectacle, it’s hard to escape the sense that Trump and his loyalists – including the one in the attorney general’s office – have much to fear from the special counsel’s findings.