There is unlikely to be a dramatic “gotcha” moment in Attorney General William P. Barr’s testimony this week before Congress, because Barr is too skilled a witness to blurt out what’s really going on. But what’s going on is, in its own way, a kind of coverup, an ongoing propaganda effort with a single goal: protect President Trump at all costs.
Barr’s name can now be added to the lengthy list of Trump administration officials who in any just accounting would be considered guilty of perjury, though there will be no such accounting. We learned on Tuesday night that Robert S. Mueller III wrote Barr a letter to protest that his summary had mischaracterized the report. Barr’s summary did what it set out to do: establish a narrative, before anyone had seen the report, that it had exonerated Trump and disproved all the allegations against him.
We now have Mueller’s full letter to Barr, and the frustration and anger Mueller felt are even more clear. Mueller says he had already sent Barr executive summaries of each section, with sensitive material redacted, and asked him to release them to the public so that the public could be informed about what his investigation actually found:
Accordingly, the enclosed documents are in a form that can be released to the public consistent with legal requirements and Department policies. I am requesting that you provide these materials to Congress and authorize their public release at this time.
Yet Barr refused.
And in his previous testimony to Congress after he received this letter but before the report was released, Barr repeatedly said that he was not aware of any disagreement Mueller had with his four-page summary. We now know that was a lie.
In his testimony Wednesday morning, Barr described a phone conversation he had with Mueller after Mueller sent him this letter.
“He was very clear with me that he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report,” Barr said.
But that is exactly what Mueller says in his letter to Barr, that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Let me suggest that given Barr’s record so far, we should suspend judgment on whether he’s telling the truth about this conversation until we hear directly from Mueller.
Barr’s testimony only got worse as it went along. There was a tortured exchange about the fact that, as Mueller details, Trump instructed then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller fired, and then when that was reported in the press, instructed McGahn to deny it publicly. The report even describes Trump insisting to McGahn that because he had not used the word “fire," that meant he didn’t really tell McGahn to have Mueller fired, and that meant McGahn could publicly insist that Trump never told him to have Mueller fired. McGahn, perhaps realizing how absurd that was, refused.
Yet in his testimony, Barr took the Trump position on that question. Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barr insisted there was nothing wrong with Trump seeking to have Mueller “removed,” instead of “fired,” and then telling the White House counsel to tell a story he knew to be false, because it would be theoretically possible that there would be another special counsel appointed to take his place:
FEINSTEIN: You still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself.
BARR: Well, that’s not a crime.
FEINSTEIN: So you can, in this situation, instruct someone to lie?
BARR: To be obstruction of justice, the lie has to be tied to impairing the evidence in a particular proceeding. McGahn had already given his evidence, and I think it would be plausible that the purpose of McGahn memorializing what the president was asking was to make a record that the president never directed him to fire — and there is a distinction between saying to someone, “Go fire him, go fire Mueller,” and saying “Have him removed based on conflict.”
As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) later said about a separate matter, “That’s some masterful hairsplitting.”
From the moment Barr was nominated to be attorney general, some of us were shouting that despite his reputation as a white-shoe Republican lawyer of long standing in Washington, he was being placed in that office solely in order to protect Trump. While it was too late for him to shut down the Russia investigation, he has done everything in his power to act not as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer but as Trump’s advocate.
Every time Barr appears in public to discuss the Russia scandal, he makes that more and more clear, and brings more shame upon himself.