Attorney General William Barr’s cheerleading for President Donald Trump on Thursday morning was entirely inappropriate, and forces the question of whether a cover-up is underway.
Barr claimed, in his brief back and forth with journalists, that he was only there to answer questions about the process of producing the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, not its substance. But, in fact, his statement was mostly about the substance, as he chose to spin it.
First, he said the report concluded there was “no collusion,” without explaining anything about the many contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. With the redacted report now released, we may know soon how accurate that conclusion is.
But Barr’s statements on obstruction were astonishing, especially given that the first headlines when the report was released indicated that Mueller seemed to take the evidence of obstruction quite seriously. Essentially, Barr asserted that the president’s behavior was OK simply because Trump was frustrated at being attacked. Barr said “it is important to bear in mind the context” of Trump being investigated and the “relentless speculation” in the media despite what the attorney general characterized as Trump’s innocence.
But even assuming that Trump had done absolutely nothing wrong, that hardly excuses interference with legitimate FBI investigations. If, for example, President Obama had shut down an inquiry into his citizenship, it would have been a gross abuse of power, even though allegations that he wasn’t born in the U.S. were completely false.
Moreover, Barr’s presentation was misleading at best. The attorney general said: There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks. Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation.
But that skips over Trump’s documented attempts to secure the loyalty of FBI Director James Comey, which ended with Trump’s dismissal of Comey. In other words, Barr is pretending that the most prominent episode of obstruction (which is surely detailed in Mueller’s report) never happened.
It’s worth emphasizing, too, that even if Trump is entirely innocent of criminal obstruction or even anything that could be characterized as “collusion,” we already know that there were plenty of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. Perhaps they were all perfectly innocent, but they looked bad for the president when they came to light, which provides a strong motive for obstruction. We also know that the investigation threatened to reveal plenty of other politically damaging material, such as the hush-money payments to women claiming affairs with Trump.
In other words, Barr is claiming that Trump’s frustration at being falsely accused was behind the president’s acts of obstruction, and excuses those actions. And even if the motives for obstruction did not include covering up a crime, frustration about being falsely accused is no excuse.
Barr gave no reason for his spin-first, release-later strategy. He also confirmed that he had given the White House an advance look at the Mueller report. If he was deliberately trying to make his actions seem suspicious, he couldn’t have done a better job.
It may just be a very clumsy attempt at spin. But Barr seems to be doing his best to make it look like a cover-up.