Most of us who are skeptical about what comes out of the Trump administration expected there would be a gap between Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the report itself. But the release of Mueller’s report exposed a Grand Canyon that has widened by the moment, as the 448-page report is digested. Somewhere at the bottom of that canyon lies Mr. Barr’s battered reputation.
The original sin that cinched Barr his job was an unsolicited June memo in which Barr claimed that President Donald Trump could not legally obstruct justice, even if he exercised his presidential authority in a corrupt way. Clearing the president before Mueller released a single piece of evidence was the functional equivalent of waving a bloody minnow in front of a starving piranha. To no one’s surprise, Trump took the bait and nominated Barr for attorney general.
Barr began his job by ignoring conflict of interest principles and refusing to recuse himself from the very investigation on which he had already offered a preconceived outcome. What happened next depends on your perspective. For team Trump, the pieces fell into place. For the rest of the nation, things spiraled out of control.
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Barr’s March 24 summary of the Mueller report was conceived not as a way to inform the public but as a launching pad for a propaganda campaign designed to shape public opinion in the president’s favor. Quoting from Mueller’s report, Barr wrote the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Given what we had seen play out in news reports over the past two years, it was hard to believe.
Harder to believe was Barr’s surgical cut excising half the substance of Mueller’s conclusion. The actual report showed that Barr deleted this: “The investigation … identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.” And this: “The Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and … the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Barr's misrepresentation was intentional
Barr’s remix was vastly different than the original, and the nature of the disparity made clear it was intentional. This was reinforced when Mueller’s report revealed that he gave serious consideration to charging Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort with campaign finance crimes for their proven efforts to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton at a Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, with a Russian operative.
According to Mueller, the decision not to charge Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort was not due to “no evidence,” as has been widely reported in the news media. Mueller did not bring charges because, “most significantly,” he did not think he could prove that the three — even veteran operative Manafort — knew it was illegal to solicit political “dirt” from a foreign government.
That’s quite different than implying the event never happened. And while it may not have satisfied the legal requirements needed for a criminal prosecution, the words “unethical,” “corrupt” and “sleazy” come to mind.
The attorney general’s summation of Mueller’s obstruction findings was similarly incomplete and misleading. Barr cited the now oft-quoted: “This report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” But Barr conspicuously left out the damning remainder of Mueller’s conclusion: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”
Barr wasted no time concluding it was up to “the attorney general to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” One sentence later, with no analysis, Barr repaid his hiring debt and anointed his foregone conclusion: no obstruction.
Mueller tried to facilitate impeachment
Perhaps Barr’s greatest misdeed was his decision to withhold the working principle under which Mueller considered obstruction charges against the president. Barr made it appear that Mueller made no decision because it was too close to call. Not so.
Mueller said he accepted the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2000 opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, meaning he was committed to that principle even if evidence of obstruction was overwhelming. If my editor would let me use a yellow highlighter on one line of this column, this would be it: Mueller expressed concern that bringing criminal obstruction charges against the president could “potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.”
Then the special counsel dropped a footnote that references the “relationship between impeachment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”
If only for the ability to translate this gem, I am grateful for my years in law school and my 25 years as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice. Mueller is saying that if he indicted Trump, that could throw a wrench into congressional efforts to impeach the president. There is no reason for Mueller to note this point unless he feels the evidence in his report would support impeachment proceedings. This is a far cry from Barr’s “no obstruction” and Trump’s “total exoneration” ticker tape parade.
Examine Barr's conduct for improper intent
While Mueller’s investigation focused on the improper intent of Trump and his campaign, the public should closely examine the intent behind recent actions of their attorney general.
Barr caused a misleading summary of Mueller’s report to drive exculpatory headlines for four weeks before it was subjected to textual contradiction. As the country anxiously awaited Mueller’s report, Barr told Congress that the Trump campaign had been “spied” on by federal law enforcement, knowing no honest federal prosecutor would refer to court-authorized surveillance as “spying.” Barr turned over Mueller’s report to Trump’s personal attorneys before he gave it to Congress. And even though the redacted Mueller report was ready for release last Thursday morning, Barr refused to unclench his fist until he starred in an infomercial supporting the president’s absolution.
It’s difficult to stomach the sense of nostalgia I feel for Barr’s predecessor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ one redeeming quality was his steadfast effort at maintaining the independence of the Justice Department. Sessions is gone and so is DOJ’s institutional integrity.
Since taking office, President Trump has been publicly encouraged to get a White House dog. But who needs a lap dog when you’ve got Bill Barr?
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Los Angeles and Detroit. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barr's Mueller report rollout was disgraceful. I can't believe it but I miss Jeff Sessions.