The New York Times led the cheering press pack by announcing that special counsel Robert Mueller’s completed investigation into Russian election interference provided a “powerful boost” for Donald Trump. What’s odd is that nobody inside the Times newsroom, or inside any newsroom, has read the voluminous Mueller report or examined all the supporting evidence.
The Times made its sweeping, “powerful” conclusions based on a three-and-a-half-page letter written by Attorney General William Barr, who received the Mueller report last Friday afternoon. Barr’s a Trump loyalist who was given the top job at the Department of Justice after he telegraphed that he didn’t think the president could be, or should be, indicted for obstructing justice.
The bottom line: Mueller’s report provided evidence of obstruction of justice. After receiving the report, Barr then decided not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice (surprise!) and issued a brief summary of Mueller’s work. Right now, the Mueller report and all the underlying evidence remain under lock and key at the DOJ. And no, Mueller had no say over the contents of Barr’s letter, which quoted selectively from the prosecutor’s work.
The whole scenario seems preposterous on its face, yet the White House is hoping it can pull it off. The painful realization is that there’s a chance it can, and specifically that it can rely on the political press to lose interest in the conflict, kind of like it lost interest in Trump refusing to release his tax returns. (This is the same press corps that focused like a laser for 18 months on Hillary Clinton’s emails.)
If the roles were reversed, you’d be damn sure the press would be leading a crusade for more information. If Obama had fired the director of the FBI because that person was investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then had installed someone at the DOJ who had written that he didn’t think Clinton should be indicted, and then that person was given the option of indicting Clinton, decided not to do so, and refused to make public all the evidence behind that decision? It would be Katie bar the door as far as the press was concerned.
And it wasn’t just that Barr had previously signaled that he didn’t think Trump should be indicted; it was that Barr had claimed that Mueller’s investigation had gone off the rails. Conceding in his unsolicited 20-page memo last year that he had no idea what Mueller’s investigation was actually doing in private, Barr nonetheless typed up a relentless attack on the probe, claiming it was “fatally misconceived” and “grossly irresponsible.” He also rang loud alarm bells over the idea that the president could ever be charged with—you guessed it—obstruction of justice. Specifically, Barr seemed incensed that Mueller viewed Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey over the Russia probe as problematic.
“It is untenable as a matter of law and cannot provide a legitimate basis for interrogating a democratically-elected President,” Barr wrote, demanding that Trump not be forced to answer questions from prosecutors about his actions. Barr also insists the president has “absolute” and “all-encompassing” constitutional authority over executive branch officers.
Back in January, the ACLU warned that Barr’s memo suggests he might “order Mueller to halt further inquiry into possible obstruction by the president if the Senate confirms him,” and that’s basically what happened over the weekend. Barr didn’t “halt” Mueller’s probe into obstruction of justice. He simply stymied it when Mueller provided the evidence to the Department of Justice.
Democrats are demanding that the full Mueller report be released, and they’re likely to demand that Barr and perhaps others connected to the probe testify before Congress to explain their actions. But this isn’t an issue that only Democrats in Congress have to wrestle with. The press needs to as well. It’s the Beltway press that’s supposed to hold the powerful accountable and demand transparency from public officials. How is Trump’s handpicked defender at the DOJ writing up a cherry-picked summary of a two-year investigation anything but the opposite of transparency?
Some quick history: In October 1973, the Watergate cover-up was unraveling, secret Oval Office tapes had been discovered, and special prosecutor Archibald Cox was demanding that President Richard Nixon turn the tapes over. The administration came up with an extraordinary counteroffer. Nixon said he would let just one (conservative) U.S. senator listen to the tapes, and then that senator could relay the information to his colleagues. The senator Nixon handpicked for the listening assignment? Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi, who was 72 years old and also famously hard of hearing. The so-called Stennis Compromise was rejected, and Cox was eventually given access to the tapes, one of which contained the smoking gun that sealed Nixon’s fate.
That’s what this Barr scenario looks like: an attempt by the GOP to rig the system from inside.
Another reminder: The Starr Report, the famously R-rated deep dive into Bill Clinton’s Oval Office extramarital affair, was published and shipped off to bookstores for everyone to read. It ran 480 pages. How does a three-and-a-half-page letter written by a Trump supporter possibly qualify as the final word in this two-year investigation? Every news organization in America should be banging down doors all week, demanding the release of as many Mueller documents as possible, instead of hyping Trump’s “powerful boost.”