Read anything good lately?
The events of March 24—that is, the release of Bill Barr’s four-page Cliff Notes version of the Special Counsel’s report—seemed to reset the entire calculus of politics in these United States. But a series of events since then began to call into question the credibility of Barr’s conclusions, giving rise to a growing sensation that a mass gaslighting was underway.
With the publication of the redacted version of the actual report, we now have confirmation of what many began to suspect: that Barr’s topline summary/non-summary (depending on how he felt like characterizing it on any given day), and the subsequent high-fiving by Trump, the GOP, and the rest of MAGA Nation, were not just premature, but the deliberate deployment of the reddest of red herrings. Bright fucking fire engine red.
It is now clear that, in an appalling display of dishonesty and deception, Trump, Barr & Co. consciously waged a disinformation campaign to try to convince the American people that the SCO’s report says things that it pointedly does not. (Whoda thunk?) And for a while they succeeded. The apotheosis of that campaign came today with Barr’s disgraceful press conference ahead of the overdue release of the public version of the report.
But now the emperor’s nudity is on display for all to see. (Yuck.)
As many predicted, the actual Mueller report—even the redacted version—contains a Mount Everest of damaging information about Donald Trump, information that by almost any measure rises to the level to high crimes and misdemeanors, even if it does not consist of prosecutable crimes under the narrow interpretation of the law and DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president. Because “The president didn’t commit a crime!” is all we ask of our head of state, right?
And God knows what’s in the unredacted version. Ironically, the expected outcry demanding it may not emerge, simply because what we’ve already been told is so sufficiently mind-blowing.
A lot of us worried that the details would be too nuanced to overcome the right wing’s false but meme-ready mantra of “No collusion, no obstruction!” And those details are indeed voluminous and complex. But happily, the sheer breadth and weight of the information is scale-tipping for any reasonable person. (Which admittedly, lets out everyone in the Republican Party.)
And so the political calculus has been rocked and reset again.
Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors that is Trumpian America.
THE PERSECUTION AND (CHARACTER) ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT S. MUELLER III AS PERFORMED BY THE IRONICALLY NAMED DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE UNDER THE DIRECTION OF WILLIAM BARR
Let us now briefly turn to Bill Barr.
As I wrote two weeks ago—among a chorus of others—Barr has proven to be the kind of Roy Cohn figure that Trump always wanted as his AG, and his shameful performance on television today was the final nail in the coffin of his reputation. It might as well have been an episode of “Hannity”; even Chris Wallace of Fox noted that he was behaving more like Trump’s defense lawyer than like the Attorney General of the United States. (Which many thought the media-obsessed Trump would take as a “bad review,” though I wonder if perhaps he was actually delighted by that.)
Many have pondered aloud why a man like Barr, who had already been Attorney General under Bush 41, and whose career and reputation were secure (cough cough—more on that in a bit), would want the job in the first place. Whatever the reason, it was assumed by almost everyone, even critics of Trump, that he would act honorably in the role. The presumption was that a man of such integrity and principle—an “institutionalist” as many former colleagues on both the right and left attested—would serve as a brake on his boss’s criminal-cum-autocratic instincts.
Yet since the moment he was confirmed, Bill Barr has done nothing of the sort. Very much the contrary. Instead, in two short months, he has volunteered over and over to be Trump’s human shield, and his sword as well.
So at the risk of wading into both vulgarity and misogyny, why did Bill Barr agree to be Trump’s bitch?
There was some speculation that, at 68, and having been out of public life for many years, Barr simply failed to appreciate how fast the news cycle moves these days, and the impact of the myriad new avenues of reporting in the Internet Age, such that you can’t get away with the bullshit you did in 1992.
But that’s not a reason why he would take the job: only an explanation of why he mistakenly thought he could behave so abominably in it.
The other explanation is that Barr is a Trump true believer after all, presumably drunk on Fox News, who wanted to lend his—ahem—credibility to defending the administration in its hour of need. His behavior certainly suggests that (and Nicole Wallace today reported that a reliable source close to Barr had confessed to her exactly that.)
In truth, that should have been apparent from the git-go, based on his unsolicited 19 page memo attacking the very existence of the Mueller probe, and arguing that a president literally cannot obstruct justice, by which he auditioned for the AG job, and his well-known belief in the unitary executive theory.
For that matter, as I also wrote two weeks ago, what reason was there ever to believe that Barr was a man of integrity? In reality, his history as a bag man was clear after his run in the first Bush administration, including enabling the Christmas Eve ’92 pardon of six high-ranking underlings implicated in the Iran/contra scandal, among them SecDef Caspar Weinberger. That was an abuse of power so blatant and egregious that the special prosecutor in that case, Lawrence Walsh, publicly assailed it as a coverup. Even the conservative pundit and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire dubbed Barr the Coverup-General.
That history is precisely why he got the job a second time. Barr is the go-to AG for a Republican POTUS who needs covering fire from a reasonable-seeming faux “statesman” who in truth doesn’t mind behaving like a mob consigliere. Which is exactly what Trump desperately, openly wanted.
So it was instructive this week to watch smart, admirable people like former US Attorneys Joyce Vance and Chuck Rosenberg, who, despite being Trump critics, were among those who nonetheless praised Barr at the time of his appointment, now shaking their heads and admitting that he is just a right wing hack after all. Even at the time of his appointment I didn’t buy it, simply because there was no reason to believe that Trump would EVER hire anyone of integrity. And it turns out he didn’t. (His streak is intact!)
Turns out, Barr is just Giuliani disguised as your grandpa.
(See also Barr’s recent ruling that asylum seekers must be held in custody while awaiting their hearings—a ruling designed to give Stephen Miller an orgasm—and his outrageous and deliberate use of the term “spying” to refer to judicially authorized surveillance by law enforcement, a comment designed to feed the tinfoil hat fantasies of neo-John Birchers.)
Barr stands as the missing link between Trump’s mouthbreathing GOP and the old school Bush family GOP, which has undeservedly benefited by comparison with the horrors of Team 45. But the fact is, the former grew out of the toxic seeds sowed by the latter, and the two are more alike than many “mainstream” conservatives care to admit. And Bill Barr, who served as Attorney General in both incarnations of Republican monstrosity, represents the undeniable connection between the two.
Now Bill Barr has permanently trashed his reputation and his legacy, destroying whatever illusory goodwill he once had. In that there is some poetic justice, as he never really deserved that reputation in the first place. He will go down in history as a shameless, unprincipled shill for Donald Trump, and rightly so. And as icing on the shitcake, his heretofore largely forgotten subservience to George H. W. Bush has now been resurrected and appended as an ugly prelude.
A FUNERAL FOR BILL BARR’S REPUTATION
So how exactly did Barr disgrace himself in the course of this particular goatfuck? Let me count the ways.
There was the aforementioned smoke-and-mirrors statement of March 24, when he not only deceptively spun Mueller’s conclusions on collusion, but also usurped the authority to decide the issue of obstruction (which Mueller pointedly had chosen to cede to Congress), and in so doing handed Trump an invaluable political weapon, not to mention freeing him from legal jeopardy. How far over the line were his actions? So far that members of Mueller’s famously tight-lipped team broke their silence or the first time, sending word via emissaries of their irritation at how their work was being mischaracterized for partisan purposes.
Then came the three week period of redaction which conveniently allowed Trump to go around using his bully pulpit (and I do mean bully) to pound his lie of “complete and total exoneration!” into America’s head. Then, in an unconscionable breach of legal protocol, he shared the contents of the SCO report with the White House ahead of time, allowing it to get a headstart on its counterattack. And finally, there was today’s press conference in which he spun the report like a dervish, all before delivering it to Congress—inexplicably—in a CD boxed set from Columbia House, yours for only $6.99 a month (allow six weeks for shipping).
In that presser, Barr used the legally meaningless words “no collusion” numerous times, sounding almost like his boss, and then launched into an absurd defense of Trump’s behavior, arguing that he didn’t obstruct justice, that he was just angry that he was being investigated at all, that his feelings were hurt, and that he was frustrated that the investigation was making it hard for him to do things like cage infants and praise neo-Nazis. (In real time, Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), tweeted in response, “No one is above the rule of law…unless you’re frustrated that is.”)
As my friend Tina said, Barr sounded like should have been wearing a MAGA hat. Frankly, a lot of the language read like it had been dictated by Trump himself, much like Donny Jr’s letter about his meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.
Barr’s characterization of the Mueller investigation as “binary”—that is, either bringing indictments or not in each given matter—was also predictably dishonest and ignored the investigation’s counterintelligence aspect, not to mention the fact that Congress and the American people deserve to know much more than just whether or not their president is a felon.
Ironically, one of the few honest things he said bluntly contradicted Trump. On the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election Barr supported the unanimous conclusion of the US Intelligence Community that Moscow did in fact mount such an attack, rejecting Trump’s own disgusting refusal to acknowledge as much, let alone take any steps to stop Russian interference going forward. But just as telling, Barr pointedly refused to say anything about Trump’s silence and inaction on that count.
Once the (redacted) report finally was published, even more of Barr’s lies became clear.
He blatantly lied about Mueller’s consideration of the DOJ policy on indicting a sitting president in coming to his conclusion on obstruction (Mueller plainly states that he did consider that factor), and on leaving that decision to the AG (he did not: he left it to Congress).
Barr’s claims about how cooperative Trump had been with the special counsel were already laughable, of course, which was apparent to anyone who had watched our toddler-in-chief throw his tantrums over the past 23 months, and were further contradicted by the report itself, which detailed the number of people he had pressured to lie to investigators, derail the probe, or to stop it completely. Another zinger was the report’s observation that Trump actively tried to obstruct but was stymied because his deputies (notably, Don McGahn) refused to carry out his orders, like his directive to fire Mueller himself.
Barr claimed that the report says no Americans conspired with Russian assets, which is definitively at odds with what we know about the actions of Manafort, Stone, Prince, Gates, Page, Papadopolous, and others. In truth, the SCO report goes into stunning detail in painting a portrait of the Russian attack on our electoral system and the Trump team’s connections to it, witting and otherwise, and eagerness to benefit from same. (Meanwhile Mueller basically said DJTJ and Jared were too stupid to know they were colluding.)
Most notably, in order to try to make Trump look innocent on that count, Barr had famously cherrypicked a half-quote, out of context, to use as his lede in this four-page distraction of March 24th:
“….the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Now we could see what he left out, which was the crucial subordinate clause, which as George Conway predicted, begins with the word “Although”:
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected that it would benefit electorally from the information stolen and released through Russian efforts….”
In other words, Team Trump was happy to have the help of the Russians and did not lift a finger to stop it, including refusing to notify the FBI, CIA, or other authorities of the help that was offered. Everybody OK with that?
Among the most damning parts of the report are Trump’s own words, foremost among them these from p290, which are likely to go on his tombstone:
According to notes written by (DOJ chief of staff Jody) Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, ”’Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.”
Ironically, it will likely not be the end, as he has miraculously survived—cockroach like—all manner of previous scandals that would have doomed any other president of either party. But the quote from Trump’s own mealy mouth tells us that even he knows that by all rights this should be the end.
In sum, we can now see for ourselves that Barr’s misrepresentation of Mueller’s findings rises way beyond mere spin and into the category of overt deception, abetted by abuse of his power in withholding the actual report for three weeks in an effort to let his preferred narrative set in stone. But should we be surprised that such deceit is the strategy of the Trump administration, or that Bill Barr eagerly carried it out?
So please stop telling me what a reputable jurist William Barr is.
Which bring us to the question: will any of this matter? In the twenty-five days since Barr issued his initial summary/non-summary of the Mueller report, polls have shown remarkably little change in how Americans view Trump, which is a measure of how entrenched the partisan divide has become, irrespective of the actual facts. Call us Confirmation Bias Nation.
Accordingly, the release of the SCO’s report (redacted or otherwise) is not likely to result in the deus ex machina that many of us on the left privately dreamed. Perhaps we never should have, as David Frum sagely warned way back in May 2017 (“A Special Prosecutor Is Not the Answer”). Barr’s reputation was already in tatters, so no one left of Mitt Romney was swayed by his “prebuttal” today. Conversely, all the evidence of wrongdoing in the redacted report meant precisely zip to Trump Nation, who would stand by their man even if were captured on video wearing a French maid’s outfit and shining Putin’s riding boots.
But I do think that, for any reasonable person, the sheer weight and volume of Trump’s sins, now confirmed by the SCO, ought to hurt him going forward into the 2020 election. (Wow, was it necessary to write that? That’s where we are these days.) And in the coming weeks, as we pore over the Mueller report with even more scrutiny, more and more explosive details will surely emerge.
Meanwhile the administration’s laughable attempts at damage control continue. While Kellyanne Conway told the press that this was “the best day” for Trump since November 8, 2016, Trump himself spent the morning busily sending out furious, vitriolic tweets again attacking Mueller and his team as “crooked cops” conducting a “witchhunt”…..you know, like you do when you’re totally happy and feel exonerated.
(Among his tweets, bizarrely, was a supercut of himself saying “No collusion,” which to my mind makes my point not his. Does he really think if he bludgeons us enough with the repetition of a lie it will make us believe it’s true? Apparently he does, and with some evidence to back him up, if one looks at the psychology of brainwashing and the credulity of his followers.)
So I say “laughable,” but their base does seem to lap it up.
On the other side of the aisle, the House of Representatives—led in this effort by genuinely reputable public servants like Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff—have made it clear that they will now be like a dog with a bone, and good on them for that. That kind of oversight is Congress’s job, particularly with a brazenly lawless, gangster president like this one.
And yes, impeachment is back on the table. I make no tactical assessment about whether that is a smart move going into 2020, gamesmanship wise, or what its prospects are for success. (Slim, I suspect.) I mean only that it is now all but impossible for Congress to ignore its duty to address the incredible smorgasbord of malfeasance that Bob Mueller has laid before them.
No matter what Billy Barr says.