The big takeaway from the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller report might be that it contained very little in regard to breaking news. What it did contain is confirmation that the reporting surround President Trump and the Russia scandal was not “fake news’’ but was in fact on solid ground. Much of the news surrounding the report was in how it was released. Attorney General William Barr took it upon himself to render judgements regarding the report that don’t stand up to what the report actually contains. That shouldn’t be surprising, as Trump had lamented he needed his own Roy Cohn, a fixer. In Barr he has found it. Probably the best analogy to Barr’s spin on the report came from Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker in a satirical piece titled “William Barr Reads ‘Moby Dick,’ Finds No Evidence of Whales.’’
Chris Wallace of Fox News said, “The Attorney General seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the Attorney General, talking about his motives, his emotions. … Really, as I say, making a case for the president.”
What Barr did was give the Trump spin machine a head start they put to good use, declaring the president cleared and spiking the football. That spin hasn’t held up in ensuing days.
It’s true that Mueller did not file charges against the president. It’s also true that, to use a double negative, he did not find him not guilty. Mueller followed Justice Department guidelines that state a sitting president can’t be indicted. He spelled out quite clearly that if he hadn’t found evidence of crimes that would normally bring charges he would’ve said so.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice,” Mueller wrote, “we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
History is not going to treat William Barr well. He gave the White House access to a report investigating the president but denied such access to Congress. He took it upon himself to make the call on criminal obstruction, something Mueller never requested. He said the White House had cooperated fully with an investigation the president has publicly attacked more than 1,100 times, according to the New York Times, and repeatedly tried to shut down.
The president fired the FBI chief leading an investigation into him, James Comey, and tried to get Mueller fired. His team had contacts with Russians that they should’ve been running to the FBI to report but instead at the very least welcomed their help.
Against all the background noise regarding the report, it’s important to Americans to remember we are in uncharted waters, that this administration is, to put it mildly, not normal. Many people took Comey’s firing over that “Rush-er’’ thing with a grain of salt. What many don’t realize is that it marked only the second time in American history that a U.S. president dismissed the bureau’s head; the first was when Bill Clinton tossed William Sessions in 1993 after the DOJ issued a 161-page report detailing Sessions’ numerous ethical lapses. Barr found that normal. It isn’t.
Barr isn’t the only one who looks bad after the report’s release. Sadly, Richard Burr, North Carolina’s senior U.S. Senator, may well have been sliding information to the White House regarding the ongoing FBI investigation. Burr had seemed like a square dealer in the Russia probe, so it’s disheartening to think he might be more of a Mark Meadows, who has gone so far around the bend in defending Trump he can see himself coming from the other direction. Expect to hear a lot of questions about that in coming days.
So where do we go from here? Our guess is a rocky road lies ahead, and that our institutions, including the Fourth Estate, will continue to be tested.
Robert Mueller didn’t put the next step in the hands of William Barr. He put it in the hands of Congress, saying it is up to that body, indeed its constitutional responsibility, to pursue conclusions DOJ guidelines prevented him from pursuing.
There’s a lot of talk about what Democrats, who hold the House majority, should do. Most of that talk is hot air about political strategy and potential impacts on the 2020 election.
Some of that talk is important, some of it is simply designed to fill a 24-hour news cycle with noise. But in our view “What are the Democrats going to do’’ is the wrong question.
What are congressional Republicans going to do?
The Mueller report isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card for them. They’re supposed to be representatives of the all the American people, not just the one who happens to be president. They should at least be paying mild interest to the fact that our Republic was attacked and an election was manipulated.
If a Richard Burr or a Patrick McHenry came out and said yes, I believe Donald Trump obstructed justice, or that we at least need to take the voluminous evidence of doing so seriously, that would change the conversation, don’t you think?
The ball is in the GOP’s court. Will they play or will they pass?