President Trump repeats the claim that the Russia investigation was a treasonous attack on his campaign so frequently that we rarely pause to note how riddled with monumental lies and absurdities it really is. We’re supposed to believe that the FBI should not have opened an investigation into a foreign attack on our political system, and that it did so only to derail Trump’s candidacy, even though it kept the conspiracy probe secret from voters.
In a new Post op-ed, former FBI director James B. Comey seeks to set the record straight by recounting what actually happened, while reminding us — with no apology — that the FBI did make its reopened investigation into Trump’s opponent known just before the election. As Comey says, Trump’s narrative is built on “dumb lies.”
But it’s what Comey did not say that should command the attention of Democrats right now. Comey concludes with this prediction, concerning Attorney General William P. Barr’s internal review of the Russia investigation’s genesis:
Go ahead, investigate the investigators, if you must. When those investigations are over, you will find the work was done appropriately and focused only on discerning the truth of very serious allegations. There was no corruption. There was no treason. There was no attempted coup. … There were just good people trying to figure out what was true, under unprecedented circumstances.
This confidence that Barr’s internal review will conclude that the investigation was legitimate seems deeply misplaced. Barr has already telegraphed that he will likely find a way to fault the handling of the probe, regardless of the facts.
Yet Democrats appear to share Comey’s confidence that this process will unfold in good faith. They don’t appear prepared for the contrary possibility — or how bad that could get for them.
Amash is getting this right
Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), the sole Republican to publicly state that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report documented impeachable offenses, received a standing ovation at a town hall on Tuesday. Amash declared Trump’s misconduct must not “go unchecked.”
But, importantly, Amash accompanied this with an extensive denunciation of Barr’s efforts to prop up Trump’s “false narrative.”
Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report dishonestly submerged Mueller’s conclusion that Trump potentially had corrupt motives to obstruct the investigation. Barr also sanitized away Mueller’s extensive evidence of criminal obstruction and his conclusion that the Trump campaign eagerly sought to benefit from the Russian attack.
Trump’s big lie isn’t just the claim of total exoneration — “no collusion, no obstruction” — it’s also that the investigation into an attack on our political system was illegitimate. That attack, which Trump encouraged and sought to profit from, never happened — it’s a “hoax.”
Mueller documented criminal behavior and extraordinary misconduct by the president, but this can be blotted out of existence through the determined creation of an alternate reality: “All the crimes are on the other side.”
The impeachment conundrum
Time will tell how far Barr will go in using his review to validate Trump’s alt-narrative. But Trump has granted Barr sweeping powers to declassify secrets about the Russia investigation, a move Democrats fear will lay the groundwork for selective leaking in service of Trump’s political needs.
That fear is justified, based on what we’ve already seen from Barr. Indeed, Barr has flatly stated that Democrats have reason to fear the findings of that internal review.
In this context, one crucial point Amash that is making is that, as long as lawmakers don’t faithfully give voice to what actually happened here in all its dimensions, Barr’s efforts to sell Trump’s false story line “will continue.” An impeachment inquiry, in Amash’s telling, is central to that faithful accounting.
Leading Democrats believe such an accounting can take place outside the impeachment-inquiry process.
One can envision that proving somewhat true. Efforts to get access to Trump’s finances via outside entities or through demanding his tax returns might bear fruit. Mueller and former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who witnessed extensive obstruction, might still testify.
The case for an impeachment inquiry was already strong months ago. Still, one reasonable argument against an inquiry is that the Senate will acquit, so it’s simply the wrong tool to check the president.
And so, if Democrats want to give their alternate efforts a chance to produce results, it would not be wildly derelict — but only if they genuinely retain the option of launching an inquiry with deliberate speed and remain attuned to the downside risks of tarrying for too long.
For one thing, as Brian Beutler points out, these efforts could drag on for many months — and may come across to the public as scattered and piecemeal.
What’s more, as Michael Stern explains, an inquiry could maximize legal leverage to carry out the very investigations Democrats say are the route to accountability.
And Democrats should be aware of the risks that dithering poses to public understanding. One side’s willingness to engage in full-saturation propaganda casting the investigation itself as the real crime — disinformation designed to blot out shared agreement on the most basic facts about what just happened before all of our very eyes — now has an attorney general who may be willing to help carry that out.
Given this deep imbalance, without a coherent narrative from the other side that makes Trump’s corruption and epic misconduct unequivocally central to this national moment — one riveted around whether Trump committed the high crimes and misdemeanors that render his removal imperative — is there not a great risk of deepened public confusion, just as Democrats prepare to ask the voters to do the hard work for them?