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Posts published in “Day: March 27, 2019”

An over-reaction


So much of the nation's attention is focused these days on Washington - so little on our states and localities - that the slightest tremor there is apt to result in wild overstatements, and every event becomes a world-shaker. The latest about the summary of the Mueller report - it feels vaguely ridiculous even to write the words - is a classic example of the syndrome.

Part of it is that the Mueller investigation been over-promoted - the subject of exaggerated hopes and fears - for a couple of years now. The latest on it, a four-page summary of the Mueller report (including just 67 words of a report whose size is as yet unknown), into criminal activity relating to the Trump presidential campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, is wild over-reaction.

The underlying report, developed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller and has staff as special counsel, was delivered late last week to Attorney General William Barr. And Barr in turn - while not releasing the report, or more than the aforementioned 67 words of it - did offer a four-page summary saying he could not find in it enough evidence to support criminal charges of Russian collusion or obstruction of justice. To what extent that represented Mueller's full take on the matter is unclear.

The artfully-worded statement was seized on, quickly, by President Donald Trump and his supporters as (as Trump put it) "complete and total exoneration." They either directly or indirectly called for apologies for two years of negative headlines about Russian collusion. Significant numbers of Trump critics seemed set back on their heels, both on the substance and on the politics.

Considered dispassionately, the Barr statement actually changes nothing other than the news cycle of a day or two.

First, we don't yet have the actual Mueller report, and we haven't heard from Mueller; when we do, that may or may not change the picture again, but we don't know yet. Democrats in Congress have been trying to bring both to light, and until that happens we won't know what in fact he did or didn't find beyond the extensive court filings he's already made (which seem to be forgotten in the wake of Barr's summary). Barr's statement was carefully drafted; at the most favorable interpretation to Trump, it leaves open quite a lot of wrongdoing, and at the least favorable, it leaves open a lot. It's a long way from exoneration under any realistic interpretation.

And we should remember Barr's back history of protecting presidents in trouble. One sample backgrounder from recent days should give the flavor of his actions in past years: "Back in 1992, the last time Bill Barr was U.S. attorney general, iconic New York Times writer William Safire referred to him as “Coverup-General Barr” because of his role in burying evidence of then-President George H.W. Bush’s involvement in “Iraqgate” and “Iron-Contra.”" Safire, a veteran of the Nixon White House, would know something about presidential cover-ups.

Personally, I find it notable that Barr didn't have Mueller standing next to him explaining what he had found, and what he hadn't. Mueller's silence so far speaks volumes to me. So did the fact that the tenor of the investigation seemed to change dramatically when Barr became attorney attorney; up to then, we'd seen a stream of indictments and other actions. They stopped when Barr arrived. You can expect some of these points, and others related, to surface loudly in the days ahead.

Which brings up, if we're going to examine the idea of exoneration, the mass of indictments, convictions and prison sentences delivered so far, over the last two years, to the many of the leading operatives in the Trump campaign. And the mass of information developed to date, in and out of that investigation, which have noted more than 100 undisputed contacts between people in the Trump campaign - including members of Trump's own family - and Russian operatives. And the strange behavior Trump and people close to him have exhibited toward Russia and toward this nation's long-time allies. Nor has the efforts of Trump to trash the Mueller investigation (witch hunt!) or use his authority to dismiss or derail it with Justice Department officials, or outright firings in some cases, gone away.

Criminal standards for obstruction of justice and collusion with a foreign power (which isn't actually a crime anyway) are one thing; but in the ordinary use of those words, those offenses have been long since established, with or without the Mueller investigation, in many, many ways, through means official and unofficial, not least through statements and actions the president himself has put on the record.

As a matter of politics, the Mueller report was unlikely to have changed much whatever it said. A harsher outcome (assuming here that Barr's summary is a fair representation of what was there) might have encouraged agitation for impeachment, but no serious effort at impeachment ever was likely unless conviction in the Senate was probable, and no Mueller outcome could have guaranteed that. Otherwise, people who approve of Trump and who don't - and nearly the whole population falls into one group or the other - overwhelmingly will stay where they are. A harsher Mueller outcome would have been dismissed as the witch hunt their leader long declared it to be; this one will not make Trump any converts among his critics. Very few minds will change.

For now, eyes should turn at the effort to pry loose Mueller and the text of the report, not to mention Barr's role with the investigation. But even if daylight shines there, don't expect a lot to change.

The road is long, and this is but another winding turn.