William Barr’s press conference was a whitewash
Attorney General William Barr’s Thursday morning press conference on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia report was a whitewash.
There’s no other way to describe it. Barr, who claimed beforehand that the press conference would focus on process, spun the report’s conclusions before it was released and expected reporters to ask questions about a document they had not even seen. He literally uttered the phrase “no collusion” to describe Mueller’s conclusions — providing a perfect sound bite to play on loop on cable news in the president’s favorite phrasing.
Barr repeated this and similar talking points multiple times during his prepared statement. He put tremendous effort into explaining why Trump’s behavior during the probe should be seen as justified and in no way constituted obstruction. He even praised the president for providing “unfettered access” to documents and said the White House “fully cooperated” with the investigation, despite Trump’s refusal to submit to an interview with Mueller.
At the end, when a reporter asked if it was improper for the attorney general to spin the report to the public before it was released, Barr literally walked off the stage.
REPORTER: Is it an impropriety for you to come out and sort of spin the report before people are able to read it?
*walks away* pic.twitter.com/nXH4Tk3Fyd
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 18, 2019
Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is generally respected by Trump critics, stood next to Barr silently.
It was a spectacle that said more about Barr and the way the Mueller report has been twisted by partisan politics than the report itself.
How we got to the Barr presser
To understand this presser, you need to go back in time to last June.
At that point, Barr was a private citizen. Although it had been decades since he served in government, as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, he wrote a secret memo arguing that the Mueller probe’s investigation into obstruction of justice by Trump was illegitimate — and sent it to the Justice Department.
In the memo, Barr outlined an extremely narrow theory of what would constitute obstruction of justice, arguing (among other things) that Trump could not have obstructed justice unless he had actually committed the underlying crime (criminal collusion with Russia).
When the letter’s existence was reported in December, after Trump had tapped Barr to be his next attorney general, its arguments were widely rejected by legal analysts, who saw it a definition of obstruction that would largely immunize the president from prosecution. Rosenstein even criticized it publicly.
“Our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have,” he said.
It was widely assumed, though never proven, that the letter was a kind of audition for the attorney general job — proof that Barr would be willing to cover for Trump if once again picked to run the Justice Department. The letter immediately led Democrats and other Trump skeptics to see Barr as a Trump ally first and an impartial lawyer second.
Barr’s description of the Mueller report’s key findings, released in late March, took this skepticism and turned it into full-blown distrust.
According to Barr’s letter, Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia” during the 2016 campaign. Mueller apparently did not come to any firm conclusion on whether Trump’s interference with the investigation constituted obstruction of justice, instead asking Barr and Rosenstein to draw a conclusion based on their read of Mueller’s work. Barr and Rosenstein decided that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Substantively, the letter left a lot of big questions about the investigation unanswered. Barr didn’t quote nearly enough of Mueller’s work on the 2016 election to support his brief summary. Nor did he explain in detail why he decided the evidence on obstruction wasn’t enough — something that was vitally important given the distrust generated by the June memo.
None of that stopped the president and his defenders from immediately claiming exoneration. At the same time, multiple news outlets quoted sources on the Mueller team that their conclusions were misrepresented — that the actual report was substantially more damning than the summary let on. One anonymous Mueller team member told the Washington Post that its conclusions were “much more acute than Barr suggested.”
The result was a clamor on social media and from leading Democrats for the actual text of the report to be released. Barr went from someone Trump critics didn’t trust to someone that they deeply believed to be in the president’s pocket.
“He is someone who is an agent of the administration. He is a political appointee of the president, whose interests he may very well be protecting here,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said of Barr last weekend. “I dismiss what he said. He’s a biased defender of the administration.”
Whether because of this pressure or for his own reasons, Barr agreed to release a redacted version of Mueller’s reports. But he preceded it with the presser, which essentially amounted to a defense of Trump — one that did nothing to allay concerns that Barr has been stacking the deck in Trump’s favor.
What actually happened at the presser shows how much of a farce this is
The presser itself was so strange that it nearly defies description.
Barr bent over backward to accommodate Trump’s perspective on the situation, saying that his behavior could not be considered obstruction because Trump felt “frustrated” by “the media” and the fact that there was “no collusion.” There was no summary or description of evidence that might have been unfavorable to the president, no accounting of the evidence in favor of either the obstruction or collusion allegations.
When Barr began taking questions, the situation became even more absurd. He told one reporter that “I’m really focused on the process of releasing the report,” a comment that was obviously false given that it was preceded by a lengthy statement in which he summarized the report’s substantive conclusion.
One reporter asked him to respond to criticism of his conduct by congressional Democrats like Nadler. Barr ignored the question. Another reporter followed up by asking him to respond to charges that his interpretation was overly “generous” to the president. “I’m not sure what your basis is for saying I’m being generous to the president,” Barr responded.
And then came the final question, about whether Barr was pre-spinning the report for Trump, which prompted him to literally walk off the stage. The whole thing lasted for less than half an hour, most of which was taken up by Barr’s prepared statement.
What to make of all this? There’s one clear conclusion to draw: Attorney General William Barr really seems to be acting at the president’s defender, and not the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. And that should worry all of us.