The final report on the Russia investigation, submitted on March 22 by special counsel Robert Mueller, documents multiple attempts by President Donald Trump to obstruct justice. So why hasn’t Trump been indicted? Because one man stands in the way: Attorney General William Barr. Two days after receiving Mueller’s 448-page report, Barr declared Mueller’s evidence insufficient. Since then, Barr has offered no detailed analysis to support his conclusions. Instead, in hearings and interviews, the attorney general has based his judgment on a series of falsehoods.
It’s time to certify Barr’s declaration as a fraud. No one has cleared Trump. Somebody else—Congress, voters, or a new attorney general—will have to adjudicate Mueller’s evidence.
Let’s examine Barr’s statements about the episodes of obstruction Mueller described.
1. The Comey firing. Last week, in an interview with Jan Crawford of CBS News, Barr claimed that Trump’s firing of then–FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 couldn’t be obstruction. The attorney general told Crawford, “We don’t believe that the firing of an agency head could be established as having the probable effect, objectively speaking, of sabotaging a proceeding.”
That statement contradicts Mueller’s report. The report says that Comey’s firing could have reined in the investigation by “providing the President with the opportunity to appoint a director … more protective of his personal interests” or “discourag[ing] a successor director or other law enforcement officials” from pursuing the president. The report presents extensive evidence that Trump, prior to firing Comey, pressed him unsuccessfully for personal “loyalty” and favors. In particular, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had been caught lying about his contacts with Russia. That request exposed Trump’s explicit intent, through the FBI director, to obstruct the investigation.
2. The Rosenstein memo. At a Senate hearing on May 1, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asserted that when Trump fired Comey, “The president was relying, at least in part, on a recommendation by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, arising out of Rod Rosenstein’s critique of Mr. Comey’s conduct” in the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Cornyn asked Barr, “Is that right?” Barr replied: “That’s right.”
No, it’s not right. Mueller’s report spends a dozen pages destroying, through documents and direct witnesses, Trump’s pretense that he relied on Rosenstein’s memo. The report concludes that Trump’s purported reliance on the memo was “pretextual.” Despite this, Barr reaffirmed the pretense.
3. The Lewandowski meetings. Mueller’s report describes two private meetings, in June and July 2017, in which Trump directed his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to tell then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions to abort the investigation of Russia’s 2016 interference. These meetings illustrated Trump’s intent not just to manipulate evidence or replace investigators, but to shut down the whole inquiry. At the May 1 hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked Barr how these meetings could be squared with Barr’s assertion that Trump “fully cooperated” with the investigation. With a straight face, Barr replied: “I don’t see any conflict between that and fully cooperating with the investigation.”
4. The attempt to fire Mueller. The special counsel’s report details two June 2017 phone calls in which Trump instructed then–White House counsel Don McGahn to tell Rosenstein to remove Mueller. Trump made the calls shortly after the Washington Post reported that Mueller was investigating whether Trump had obstructed the Russia inquiry. In testimony to Mueller’s investigators, McGahn said Trump specifically told him “Mueller has to go” and “Call me back when you do it.”
Barr defends Trump’s contrary account, which the president began peddling only after McGahn’s story came out. At the Senate hearing, Barr presented Trump’s version this way: “What [the president] meant was that the conflict of interest should be raised with Rosenstein, but the decision should be left with Rosenstein.” And in a May 17 interview with Fox News, Barr claimed that according to Mueller’s report, McGahn alleged only that Trump requested to “have Mueller removed for conflicts of interest.” That wouldn’t be obstruction, Barr argued, “because if you remove someone for a conflict of interest, presumably someone else is going to be put in to continue the investigation.”
That’s a misrepresentation of Mueller’s report. “McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House,” says the report. It also notes that “McGahn spoke with the President twice and understood the directive the same way both times, making it unlikely that he misheard or misinterpreted the President’s request.” The report warns that the president’s removal of a special counsel could “chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel.” Barr simply ignored these points.
5. The McGahn statement. In January 2018, the New York Times reported McGahn’s story about Trump telling him to fire Mueller. In response, Trump demanded that McGahn write a letter denying that that the president had ordered Mueller’s firing. Trump told then–White House staff secretary Rob Porter, “If [McGahn] doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him.” At a meeting the next day, Trump criticized McGahn for taking notes and asked why McGahn had told Mueller’s investigators about his order to remove the special counsel.
Trump’s demand for a letter resembles one of the acts for which President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998: encouraging Monica Lewinsky to submit a false affidavit that said, “I have never had a sexual relationship with the president.” Clinton later argued that the affidavit was true because “sexual relationship” meant “intercourse,” not oral sex. Barr offers an equally preposterous defense of the letter Trump demanded from McGahn. It “wasn’t necessarily false,” Barr told senators at the May hearing, because “There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him,’ ‘Go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict.’ ”
Barr also misrepresented Mueller’s analysis of why Trump demanded the letter. The attorney general told senators that “as the report shows, there’s ample evidence” to support the argument “that the president’s intent was directed at publicity and the press,” not at the investigation. But the report says just the opposite. Trump’s “efforts to have McGahn write a letter ‘for our records’ approximately ten days after the stories had come out—well past the typical time to issue a correction for a news story—indicates the President was not focused solely on a press strategy, but instead likely contemplated the ongoing investigation,” says the report. Furthermore, it observes the “press strategy” defense can’t explain why Trump, while demanding the letter, also criticized McGahn for telling Mueller’s investigators about Trump’s phone calls seeking to remove Mueller.
6. McGahn’s ongoing testimony. Three times at the Senate hearing, Barr cited McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller as proof that when Trump demanded the letter from McGahn, the president wasn’t trying to obstruct the investigation. “The president was aware,” said Barr, that McGahn “already had testified to the special counsel. He’d given his evidence.” But Mueller’s report makes the opposite point. “Because McGahn had repeatedly spoken to investigators and the obstruction inquiry was not complete,” says the report, “it was foreseeable that he would be interviewed again on obstruction-related topics.” In fact, McGahn was interviewed twice more.
7. What Trump knew. Barr’s most astonishing claim is that Trump was entitled to shut down the investigation because the president knew it was “bogus.” At an April 18 press conference, Barr argued that Trump’s obstructive acts weren’t corrupt because, “as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.” Two weeks later, Barr told the Senate: “If the president is being falsely accused—which the evidence now suggests that the accusations against him were false, and he knew they were false, and he felt that this investigation was unfair, propelled by his political opponents, and was hampering his ability to govern—that is not a corrupt motive for replacing an independent counsel.” In fact, said Barr, “The president could terminate that proceeding, and it would not be a corrupt intent.”
This position—that a president targeted by an investigation can unilaterally terminate it—is flatly autocratic. For that alone, the attorney general should be impeached. But Barr’s claims about what Trump knew are also false. Mueller’s report documents at least three cases in which Trump tried to thwart, manipulate, or shut down the investigation after learning about suspicious contacts between his advisers and Russia. In January 2017, Trump learned that Flynn had engaged in secret talks with Russia about lifting sanctions. In July 2017, Trump learned that his son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman had met with Russians based on an explicit offer of campaign help from the Kremlin. And in July 2018, Trump was briefed on an indictment that said the 2016 Russian hackers had “communicated with U.S. persons about the release of stolen documents,” including Trump adviser Roger Stone.
By Trump’s account, these revelations were new to him. But instead of reflecting that the investigation might be onto something, he fired Comey, tried to fire Mueller, and hinted at pardons for Stone and others. A week after the president learned of the Trump Tower meeting, he secretly pressed Lewandowski to shut down the investigation. So when Barr says Trump attacked the inquiry based on personal knowledge that it was meritless, the attorney general is either lying, expressing indifference to what’s in the report, or revealing that he hasn’t read it.
Barr’s falsehoods go on and on. He has misrepresented the length of the investigation, the special counsel’s judgment of Trump’s cooperation (“Bob Mueller obviously felt it was satisfactory”), and the known effects of Trump’s obstructive acts (“the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation”). He has told so many whoppers that no sensible person should trust his description, much less his assessment, of the Mueller report. The case against the president remains unanswered.