Politics

How William Barr Won

At every step in the investigation, the attorney general used Mueller’s ethics against him.

Robert Mueller at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Robert Mueller at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Why is President Donald Trump getting away with obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation? There are many answers: Republican corruption, Democratic incompetence, and the inability of Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, to prove an underlying crime. But one more reason is that Mueller has been outmaneuvered and betrayed by the man Trump appointed to end the investigation: Attorney General William Barr. Mueller has bent over backward to be fair to Trump. Barr, choosing loyalty to Trump over loyalty to country, has ruthlessly protected the president.

Testifying on Wednesday before two House committees, Mueller shied away from questions about impeachment. His job, he explained, was to investigate the facts and deliver a report to the attorney general. Anything else was beyond his purview. Democrats asked Mueller whether Trump campaign officials had betrayed their country when they communicated with WikiLeaks about Democratic emails hacked by Russia. They asked whether Americans should be concerned that three senior Trump advisers had “eagerly sought a foreign adversary’s help to win elections.” Mueller refused to say.

The former special counsel also refused to draw factual conclusions. Didn’t his report show that Trump had lied about a lucrative construction project in Moscow? Didn’t Trump’s dangling of pardons discourage witnesses from cooperating with the investigation? Mueller declined to answer. He wouldn’t affirm even the most obvious truth: that Russia’s election interference affected some people’s voting decisions. When Democrats tried to spin the evidence, Mueller shot them down. Responding to one lawmaker’s comment that “sanctions relief was discussed” at the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Mueller retorted: “Yes, but it was not a main subject.”

Again and again, Democrats recited facts from Mueller’s report, hoping he would endorse their conclusions. Didn’t his findings about the Trump Tower meeting add up to a conspiracy? Didn’t Trump’s pressure on then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions to abort the investigation in 2017—and on then–White House counsel Don McGahn to write a false witness statement in 2018—prove obstruction of justice? Each time, Mueller rejected the political script, stipulating that his affirmation of the cited facts didn’t mean he agreed with the lawmakers’ characterizations.

Mueller’s integrity makes him a sterling investigator but a lousy political combatant. On March 22, he submitted his 448-page report to Barr, laying out evidence that Trump had obstructed justice but declining to state that conclusion. Barr responded by hijacking the report. Instead of digesting it or releasing the summaries Mueller had drafted for public release, the attorney general issued a letter on March 24 declaring, without explanation, that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Mueller and his team were taken aback. On March 27, the special counsel sent Barr a note pointing out that the attorney general’s letter “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Mueller asked Barr to release the summaries drafted by the special counsel’s office. Barr refused. Mueller didn’t tell the press about this dispute, and Barr exploited his silence. When the attorney general was asked on April 9 whether members of Mueller’s team were unhappy with Barr’s March 24 letter, he falsely testified that he knew nothing about it.

By dismissing the case against Trump three weeks before he released the report, Barr allowed Republicans to frame the report as a victory. And on April 18, when Barr unveiled the document, he misrepresented it. “The Special Counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations,” Barr declared. “In other words, there was no evidence of Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with the Russian government’s hacking.”

That wasn’t true. The report said that there was evidence—for example, Trump’s explicit appeal to Russia during a July 2016 press conference to “find the 30,000 emails” Hillary Clinton had deleted—but that it wasn’t enough. Barr was twisting the report to fit Republican spin that the investigation was baseless.

On May 1, Barr compounded his lies. Testifying before the Senate, he dismissed Mueller’s findings: “I don’t think there was anything to have a day in court on.” Even after senators pointed out that Trump had tried to shut down the investigation, Barr insisted that the president had “fully cooperated” with it. He argued that when Trump told McGahn to write a false statement in February 2018, denying that the president had instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, this wasn’t necessarily a lie because terminating and replacing a special counsel wasn’t really a firing. Barr also theorized that when Trump told witnesses not to “flip,” the president wasn’t telling them to hide the truth: He was just telling them not “to lie” under pressure from law enforcement.

Barr proposed that Trump was, in effect, above the law. He testified that a president could shut down an investigation of himself based on his own judgment that the investigation was baseless. If a legal proceeding was “based on false allegations, the president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and allow it to run its course,” said Barr. “The president could terminate that proceeding, and it would not be a corrupt intent.” The attorney general applied this argument specifically to Mueller, claiming that Trump had been “falsely accused” and could therefore fire the special counsel.

On May 30, in a CBS News interview, Barr expanded on his imperial theory of the presidency. He claimed that even if was true that Trump fired then–FBI Director James Comey to quash the Russia investigation, that wasn’t obstruction because “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.” The real victim in Trump’s conflicts with Comey, Mueller, and other investigators, Barr suggested, was the president: “People are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that.” The true threat, he argued, came from Americans “resisting a democratically elected president.”

While shilling for Trump, Barr has persistently undercut Mueller. He has claimed, contrary to Mueller’s report and testimony, that the special counsel found Trump’s cooperation “satisfactory” and “never pushed” for an interview with the president. In addition, Barr has rebuked Mueller, not just for declining to clear Trump of obstruction, but also for continuing the investigation after deciding that under Justice Department guidelines, the president couldn’t be charged. Barr has even parroted the false Republican talking point that Mueller “spent two and a half years” on the investigation.

Worst of all, Barr has betrayed the Justice Department by defending Trump’s smears against the investigation. At a Senate hearing on April 10, he stood up for Trump’s description of the inquiry as a “witch hunt.” And in a May 17 Fox News interview, the attorney general declared that if he were in Trump’s shoes, “I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.”

Mueller has refused to fight back. At Wednesday’s hearings, he declined to dispute anything in Barr’s March 24 letter or April 18 press conference. He refused to discuss any disagreements between himself and Barr about the obstruction statutes. Nor would he talk about the March 27 note he had sent to Barr. In statements to both House committees, Mueller said he wouldn’t “comment on the actions of the attorney general or of Congress. I was appointed as a prosecutor, and I intend to adhere to that role and to the department’s standards that govern it.”

And what is Mueller’s reward for these scruples? During his testimony, Republicans accused him of bias against Trump. Then, at a press conference afterward, they crowed that Mueller had trashed the Democrats’ talking points against the president. In the hearings, Democrats had “laid out every possibility they could for obstruction,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “And Mr. Mueller looked at ’em and said … ‘I don’t agree with your theory.’ That should tell you a lot right there.”

It certainly does. It explains, to a large extent, why Trump is off the hook. Barr is playing politics, and Mueller isn’t. Even a Bronze Star Marine can be fragged.