Both at the press conference and in yesterday’s hearing, the attorney general insisted that Mueller had told him that it was not merely the Justice Department’s legal opinion stating that the president could not be indicted that prevented him from concluding that Trump had obstructed justice. “He made it clear that he had not made the determination that there was a crime” but for the opinion, Barr said at the press conference. The implication is that the issue was not just one of legal authority, but that the evidence wasn’t there either.
I don’t know what Mueller told Barr privately, but the report does not support this claim. Mueller lists four “considerations that guided our obstruction-of-justice investigation.” The first of them states that the Justice Department “has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’” Because Mueller is an officer of the Justice Department, “this Office accepted [the department’s] legal conclusion for purposes of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction.”
The use of the word jurisdiction here is not casual. It means that Mueller believes he lacks the authority to indict the president. Because of that, he goes on to explain, he did not evaluate the evidence to render a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The report offers no support for the notion that Mueller stayed his hand on obstruction out of concern for the strength of the evidence.
The effects of these layers of mischaracterization are to rewrite the Mueller report and to recast the presidential conduct described in it. The direction of the recasting just happens to dovetail with the president’s talking points, and just happens to transmute him from a scofflaw with power into a victim of the “deep state.”
David Frum: Trump’s stonewall is beginning to crack
The mystery is why Barr is doing this. In an op-ed yesterday in The New York Times, Comey offered one hypothesis, writing that “amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them” and that “proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from.”
This may be right. It may be the case that Barr knows that he’s spinning, and that he’s doing it—having had his soul eaten by Trump “in small bites,” in Comey’s poetic formulation—to preserve his position in the mad king’s court.
But we should also consider what is perhaps a scarier hypothesis: What if Barr actually believes it all? That is, what if he has sufficiently become a creature of the factual ecosystem of Trump’s support that he truly believes that the real problem here was not a president who accepted (noncriminally, of course) assistance from a hostile foreign power during his campaign, lied serially about it, and tried repeatedly to frustrate investigation of his conduct? What if Barr actually believes that closing a criminal case on these matters is the end of the historical conversation, as well as the end of the criminal conversation? What if he is actually untroubled by the substance of what Mueller reported and, like Rudy Giuliani, believes it’s okay for presidential candidates to take “dirt” from foreign governments on their rivals and okay for presidents to call up investigations of those rivals? What if he really believes that the true problem here was the investigators?
In some ways, the only thing scarier than an attorney general who would knowingly and cynically deliver the layers of misinformation Barr has been dishing is one who would do so because he’s all in on a collective delusion.