Observers of the Justice Department will spend the rest of our lives talking about Attorney General William Barr’s jaw-dropping and horrifically inappropriate address on Thursday morning, which attempted to spin special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in Donald Trump’s favor—before the public has seen it. In just a few minutes, Barr managed to throw Mueller under the bus, mount a Fox News–style defense of Trump, and further obscure his dubious decision to absolve the president of obstruction of justice. It is hard to convey just how appalling Barr’s performance was, and it will take a while to assess the extent of the damage Barr just inflicted on the Department of Justice and the office of the attorney general. But let me take a first crack: This was Pravda-style propaganda, pure and simple, a grotesque display of spineless fealty to the president, and a confirmation that Barr views the Mueller investigation as fundamentally illegitimate.
The first half of Barr’s address was essentially a reiteration of his earlier summary of Mueller’s report, which the attorney general helpfully summed up in Trump’s two favorite words: no collusion. Mueller, Barr explained, found that the Russian government did unlawfully attempt to influence the 2016 election; both Russian military officials and the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm affiliated with the Russian government, meddled in the race. But the special counsel “found no evidence that any Americans—including anyone associated with the Trump campaign—conspired or coordinated with the Russian government or the IRA in carrying out this illegal scheme.”
We do not yet know if Barr used this oddly narrow language to conceal attempts by the Trump campaign to collude with Russian agents, or to disseminate stolen material; to obscure possible coordination with Russian nationals not formally connected to the Russian government; or to obfuscate an extremely cramped definition of conspiracy and collusion. The report itself should help us understand just how candid or dishonest, this segment of Barr’s address was. And hopefully, Barr did not redact portions of the report that might clear up any sleights of hand the attorney general may have performed to gloss over legally troubling conduct by the president and his associates.
What we do know is that the president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the same day that President Barack Obama issued retaliatory measures in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. And that Mueller later prosecuted Flynn for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russian officials. And that Flynn pleaded guilty to this felony charge and cooperated with the probe. And then Trump asked then–FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation into Flynn.
We also know that Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations committed in an effort to cover up Trump’s extramarital affair—a crime allegedly committed at the president’s direction, and one that was prosecuted by the Southern District of New York after the special counsel’s office provided it with information about Cohen. And we know that Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a new property in Moscow during the presidential campaign. Cohen, in fact, admitted to this crime as part of a plea deal with Mueller.
This information is important to keep in mind when considering the second half of Barr’s address, pertaining to obstruction of justice. Barr once again reiterated that he does not believe in Mueller’s legal theory of obstruction. He didn’t elaborate, but his views here are well-known: Barr believes obstruction of an investigation cannot be committed unless there is an underlying crime (which is wrong) and that the president cannot commit obstruction by exercising his executive powers, even if done with a corrupt motive (which is dubious). But leave that aside for now. What’s truly astonishing is that after briefly attempting to exculpate Trump of obstruction, Barr launched into a vigorous and gratuitous defense of the president’s highly unusual and suspect behavior throughout the probe:
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. 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.
Barr’s message here is simple: Trump is the real victim. The victim of the media and leaks. The victim of excess scrutiny and oversight. The victim of what Barr appears to believe was an overly intrusive investigation conducted by overzealous “federal agents and prosecutors.” All of Trump’s lying, his interference, his efforts to publicly discredit the probe, his public assault on Mueller—all of it is excusable, Barr implied, because the probe found “no collusion.” Indeed, Barr writes off Trump’s campaign against the investigation as a perfectly understandable effort to maintain his innocence. His acts were not obstructionary; they were noble.
That’s not legal analysis, since righteous anger is not an actual defense against obstruction. It’s political spin. It’s propaganda. It’s running interference for the president who appointed Barr to do precisely this—to exonerate him in public before Americans can read Mueller’s report. It was a galling performance for an audience of one, the president. And Trump must be pleased. In fact, the moment the presser ended, the president posted a Game of Thrones–themed tweet telling the “haters and the radical left Democrats” that it was “Game Over.” Barr’s performance and Trump’s tweet seemed almost coordinated. It is an extraordinary embarrassment for DOJ.
The attorney general did what Trump hired him to do. In the process, he has disgraced his office in ways we are only beginning to understand. Barr joined the DOJ too late to quash the investigation. But he is doing his best to shield the Trump from its findings. Thursday morning will be remembered as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the Department of Justice.