Sunday, March 31, 2019

Trump's "Mass Deception" on Mueller Report

      Special counsel Robert Mueller dutifully submitted a 400-page report to Attorney General William Barr this month [March 23], but one week later Mueller is the only major figure in this constitutional melodrama yet to be heard from. President Trump and Barr have given differing interpretations of the report, and so too Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats along with Trump's supporters and opponents all across the country.
      Trump, who has not read the report, called it a "total exoneration" in remarks from the White House lawn and in a gloating harangue to a campaign-style rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Thursday [March 28]. Barr, who has read the report, had previously stated in a four-page letter [March 24] that the report "does not exonerate" the president. The fact-checking news site PolitiFact noted that discrepancy as one of Trump's misstatements to the crowd along with the false claim that the investigation into the Trump campaign's contacts with the Russians began only after the election and that the investigation had resulted in "framing innocent Americans."
      One week out, the battle lines have been drawn in what Brookings Institution expert Benjamin Wittes calls "the war of the narratives." Mueller's report will remain unseen for a couple of weeks as Barr, who apparently is quicker at reading than redacting, blacks out grand jury material, classified information, and any material bearing on the spinoff pending investigations. With the delay, Capitol Hill Democrats are demanding to see "the Mueller report, not the Barr report" and threatening to subpoena the document itself if necessary.
      Wittes, presiding over a panel discussion at Brookings on Thursday [March 28], noted with regret that Mueller had not taken his earlier advice to prepare an executive summary to be released as soon as he had submitted the full report to the attorney general. For now, Trump is winning "the war of the narratives" by wielding his patented WMD: "weapons of mass deception." Barr too is deceiving the public, according to one of the Brookings experts, by defending the decision that Mueller left to him essentially to absolve Trump of any obstruction of justice.
      Barr based his decision in part on the perverse logic that "many" of Trump's arguably obstructive actions "took place in public view"—thus ratifying Trump's campaign-time boast that he could shoot someone in full public view and get away with it. Barr also said that Mueller had "recognized" that the evidence "does not establish that Trump was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference" and that "the absence of such evidence bears upon the President's intent with respect to obstruction."
      Barr said he reached this conclusion, in consultation with deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein on the merits without regard to any question of whether the president is subject to a criminal indictment. But it must be noted that Barr had already absolved Trump of obstruction in the long memo he wrote months before his appointment as attorney general. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that Barr was now doing exactly what Trump intended in choosing him to lead the Justice Department—that is, "to make sure the president is above the law."
      At the Brookings panel, one member of the audience asked whether it was "widely accepted" that there could be no obstruction of justice charge without proof of an underlying crime. "That's not the law," Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official now teaching at Georgetown Law School, responded. "Not only is it not widely accepted: it's not the law."
      Wittes and other panelists confessed some surprise that Mueller had in effect passed the obstruction issue to Barr without recommendation. "It's clear that there was considerable obstruction of justice," Wittes remarked in the opening. With the report still unseen, Wittes's Brookings and Lawfare colleague Susan Hennessey agreed. "They found lots and lots of stuff but just a hair below the threshold of a criminal indictment," she said.
      By now, much of the "stuff" that must be in Mueller's report is well known and no longer in dispute: the Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. took with Russian agents promising dirt on Hillary Clinton; the "back channel" communications link with the Russians that son-in-law Jared Kushner wanted to establish at the Russian embassy itself; national security adviser Michael Flynn's pre-inauguration meeting with Russians to talk about easing U.S. sanctions. On and on.
      House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, under pressure to resign from Trump and the committee's Republicans, ran through the whole list in a dramatic reading as the committee opened a hearing on Russian interference in the election last week [March 28]. He called it "evidence of collusion" and challenged the Republicans for turning a blind eye. "I don't think it's OK," Schiff said. "And the day we think it's OK is the day we have lost our way."
      Mueller's supposed "witch hunt" ended with a string of guilty pleas, convictions, and still pending indictments against Trump associates and campaign aides, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and confidante Roger Stone, and a dozen Russian agents, admittedly beyond the reach of U.S. law. The report presumably lays all that out, but for now Trump and his supporters are winning the war of the narratives while the other side waits, disarmed, for a truer accounting of the facts.

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