As the political world struggles to digest the enormity of Attorney General William P. Barr’s profound corruption of his role on President Trump’s behalf, it’s worth stepping back and surveying a distilled version of what we know, now that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s redacted report has been released:
- Russia launched a “sweeping and systematic” attack on our political system, undermining the integrity of our elections, to elect Donald Trump president.
- U.S. law enforcement launched an investigation primarily aimed at getting to the bottom of that attack so that we could fully reckon with what happened and ensure the integrity of future elections.
- Trump tried in multiple ways to derail that accounting of this massive attack on our political system — and then tried to bury the truth about that derailment effort — in a manner that was at best corrupt, and at worst criminal.
The simplest way to understand much of what Barr has done — and what Trumpworld will be doing to impede inquiries going forward — is that it’s mainly aimed at obscuring the broad contours of that larger story.
The point here is not that everything they’re doing is deliberately aimed at this end. It’s that this bigger story is at the center of everything — and by “biggest crime of all,” I mean Trump’s most monstrous wrong — and thus efforts to keep smaller truths from coming out will inevitably be about obscuring that larger story.
The Barr summary. Barr’s summary quoted the Mueller report’s claim that he had not established criminal conspiracy, but Barr omitted the sentence fragment saying the Trump campaign “expected” to “benefit” from Russian help. Barr also took Mueller’s words out of context to omit the conclusion that Trump was motivated to obstruct the investigation because it “would call into question the legitimacy of his election” by spotlighting Russian interference.
This allowed Trump to claim total exoneration on the details, but on that larger story as well: It obscured Trump and his campaign’s embrace of Russian interference and his extensive efforts to prevent an accounting of it. We now know Mueller was deeply concerned that this had profoundly misled the public about the gravity of what he had found, that is, in a big-picture manner.
Barr’s clearance of Trump on obstruction. At the hearing, Barr engaged in extraordinary verbal gymnastics to argue that, when Trump ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn to get Mueller fired — which he then pressed McGahn to lie about — he didn’t actually quite mean that.
This is deeply questionable, because in this case, Mueller flatly concluded there was “substantial evidence” Trump had acted with corrupt intent, “to deflect or prevent further scrutiny.” But as legal experts tell Carol D. Leonnig, what’s crucial here is that Barr went beyond claiming Trump shouldn’t have been indicted, per Justice Department policy, and strained to argue that the underlying misconduct itself was no big deal.
Similarly, in a big moment, Barr declared Trump could terminate the investigation if he believed he was being “falsely accused,” and it wouldn’t display “corrupt intent.” This basically puts Trump above the law, but, like the above example, it also clears Trump of the underlying misconduct — Trump’s efforts to derail an investigation into a Russian attack on our election were no biggie, because he decreed he’d been unfairly swept up in that investigation.
Barr’s constant efforts to downplay the importance of the original investigation itself are important to keep in mind. Which leads us to...
The replacement narrative. When Barr validates Trump’s conspiracy theories about “spying” on his campaign, he’s propping up the alt-narrative that Trumpworld has been spinning — that the investigation was illegitimately aimed at removing Trump, and that investigators corruptly overlooked the real criminal — Hillary Clinton.
The idea that there was no legitimate basis for the probe is a backdoor way of saying that the Russian assault on our political system, irrespective of any criminal conspiracy with it, was not worth investigating (and by extension, that tacit Trumpworld collusion with it is also no biggie).
Indeed, Barr has basically copped to all those things. At the hearing, Barr validated the idea that Clinton may have been the real colluder, cast doubt on the investigation’s genesis, and even declined to say that the Trump campaign’s embrace of Russian help mattered.
What’s stunning about all this is that Barr does not appear to be a conspiracy theorist. He’s playing footsie with this alt-narrative for cynical instrumental purposes, and these other Republicans probably are as well.
The coming obstruction. Imagine Mueller testifying to Congress about the relative merits of the real narrative (Trump corruptly impeded an investigation into an attack on our election and then tried to cover that up) versus the alt-narrative (deep-state coup), and you see why Barr is reluctant to agree to a date for Mueller’s testimony.
Similarly, the White House might try to block McGahn from testifying — since he might vividly inform the public on the true nature of Trump’s efforts to impede that investigation into Russian sabotage.
Meanwhile, Trump’s blockading of Democratic efforts to access his finances — through closeting his tax returns and lawsuits against outside entities — may be about obscuring foreign financial entanglements, an apparent target of Democratic investigations.
Trump continues to refuse to acknowledge the Russian attack ever happened, because so doing would diminish the greatness of his victory. Worse, this has cramped the government’s efforts to combat the next attack. Barr is helping to quasi-validate this, while minimizing Trump’s corrupt and likely criminal efforts to bury a reckoning with all of it.
It’s doubtful that this will all go according to plan. There are too many constraints built into the system. There are too many ongoing investigations for Trump to outrun. But we should be clear about what’s being attempted: The stage is set for an investigation of the investigators, and the supplanting of a real crime with a fictional one.