Well, it’s a setback. But what did you expect?
Bill Barr sent an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Justice Department in June last year, arguing that Robert Mueller’s investigation was ‘fatally misconceived’, based on his belief that a sitting President cannot, by law, obstruct justice. It was widely viewed as a job application, and in due course Barr was indeed appointed Attorney General of the United States by the man who is the principal focus of Mueller’s report.
That the AG would now find so firmly in Trump’s favour is as surprising as your team winning this weekend if they got to choose who refereed the game.
Barr’s four page summary of Robert Mueller’s 675-day probe will make headlines for its ‘no collusion’ determination but it’s worth looking at the details, because all is not quite as it may seem.
First, Mueller does not recommend any further indictments, but this may well be because so much evidence has been farmed out to state prosecutors, as has already been the case with charges against Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Cyrus Vance at the Southern District of New York is thought to pose a much greater threat to the president than Robert Mueller.
However, the headlines you will see for the next few weeks will be based on the following sentence – ‘the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities’.
The charge is very tightly defined. Trump’s team (Barr says) didn’t collude with Russia’s Internet Research Agency (which mounted the social media campaign of disinformation) nor did the Trump campaign conspire or coordinate in efforts to hack and disseminate emails and other information from the Clinton campaign. These were never the central allegations, but what the hell – ‘NO COLLUSION!’
Really? No collusion? At all? If that’s the case then Trump’s Russian entanglements are the most coincidental coincidences in the history of coincidence. Let’s look at what we know so far.
Seventeen members of the Trump administration had over 100 meetings with Russians during the 2016 campaign. The normal number for an American political party would be zero.
While running for president, Donald Trump sought a Trump Tower Moscow deal that would have made him hundreds of millions of dollars, but lied about it claiming he had no contact or dealings with Russia whatsoever. Vladimir Putin would have known that Trump was lying. This gave him leverage. But perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Trump offered concessions to Russia and spoke warmly of Putin throughout the election cycle.
In early June 2016, Donald Trump Jnr, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, three of Trump’s most powerful advisors, took a meeting with an agent of the Russian government at Trump tower. The meeting was specifically predicated on ‘Russia and its government’s support for’ Trump, and the dishing of Democratic dirt for political gain. It’s not tenable to say that this was just inexperienced people finding their way through the political system. The meeting was known to be sensitive. It was kept secret. When exposed, those attending lied about the nature of the discussion.
Just by taking the meeting, the most senior staff in the Trump campaign overtly signalled to Russia that they were happy to work together in order to win the election. Russia had American political dirt. Trump’s team should have called the FBI. By not doing so they gave the Russians the green light.
A month later Trump was personally warned by the FBI that Russia was trying to infiltrate his campaign and interfere in the election, yet in public he continued to refute the idea that Russia was doing so. By this point all of the most senior members of the Trump campaign would have known that Russia was meddling in the election and taking illegal steps to support one side, yet they continued to deny this fact or their knowledge of it. When the Clinton campaign publicly raised concerns, Trump’s team accused Democrats of mounting a hoax.
Imagine being the FBI agent who briefed Trump that Russia was hacking emails and interfering in the election, only to see him go out and publicly state the opposite. No wonder they opened an investigation to examine if Trump was a foreign asset.
Again and again, the messages conveyed by the Trump campaign eerily mirrored the disinformation being spread by Russia, and vice-versa. Paul Manafort took secret meetings with Kremlin-associated Russians and handed them internal polling information that was of enormous value and power.
Donald Trump and his senior team encouraged an attack on America’s election by a mortal enemy, met with the enemy, handed them information, tried to establish back-channel communications, then lied about it all when their efforts were exposed. We knew all this in great detail before Bill Barr even started writing his letter. It’s really not that complicated.
No one expected to find some formal, written agreement between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Conspirators often base things on a wink and a nod. They meet in darkened rooms and use cut-outs and surrogates to avoid a paper trail. That doesn’t make a criminal conspiracy any less illegal.
Below the fold, and much more problematic for Trump, is Robert Mueller’s approach to the obstruction of justice charge. Mueller was unable to reach a legal conclusion, perhaps based on the notion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. He appears to think that this was a matter for Congress to decide. Barr’s summary states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’.
Within an hour Trump tweeted ‘Complete and Total EXONERATION’. Because of course.
So, prepare yourself for an onslaught from Trump supporters. For them, Barr’s letter represented the best day of this presidency. There was no collusion, no obstruction of justice and Mueller’s investigation was a witch-hunt all along, just like they said. But that won’t be enough. This news is being weaponised to form a new narrative that states that not only should there now be an investigation into Mueller and his team (‘investigate the investigators!’), the myriad of other investigations into Trump are now illegitimate and should be stopped. After all, the logic goes, if we spent all that money on Mueller and he found nothing, then there is nothing to find and this continued persecution of a blameless president is illegal, and perhaps even treasonous.
Note how this is pivoting on a six-pence. For the last two years we’ve heard a relentless barrage of noise about how Mueller’s investigation was an illegitimate witch-hunt, how his ‘thirteen angry Democrats’ were an affront to every law known to man. Now it seems that Barr’s summary of the report has to be treated as absolute fact.
Trump, ever the victim, has begun turning apparent vindication into vengeance. ‘There are a lot of people out there that have done some very evil things, very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country and hopefully people that have done such harm to our country … those people will certainly be looked at’. Already a media blacklist has been sent to television producers, very much a Soviet-era move. Worse will follow. Things will look bad for a time.
However, a two-year investigation into a colossal crook like Donald Trump is likely to have found some very unsavoury stuff. If the Mueller report truly exonerated Trump you would expect it to have been released already. So this now becomes a question of how long Barr delays releasing Mueller’s findings, how much he redacts, and how much power congressional committees can bring to bear when trying to expose not just the Mueller report but the underlying documents on which it is based. With Barr at the helm your hopes for transparency should not be high.
In reality, the Mueller report may not have the electoral impact it may seem to hold. Very few people voted in the 2018 mid-terms because of the Special Counsel investigation. But momentum can move mountains, and Barr’s letter has put the wind in Trump’s sails.
Remember this. Nothing has changed. We already have overwhelming evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as of obstruction of justice by the President. We already know enough. It’s the greatest scandal in American history.
As Jeremy Bash put it…
“Trump asked for Russia’s assistance.
Trump received Russia’s assistance.
Trump benefited from Russia’s assistance.
Trump rewarded Russian assistance.”
‘But it’s all a hoax’ chuckled Trump’s campaign chairman, as he settled down for another night in his windowless prison cell.