US Attorney General William Barr has some explaining to do.
In the more than two weeks since Barr sent Congress his summary of the more than 400-page Mueller report it seems increasingly clear that the attorney general is doing political spadework for President Trump.
In the process he’s needlessly sullied his reputation on behalf of an increasingly unhinged and chronically dishonest president.
Not only did Barr endorse Trump’s “no collusion” talking point, but on the question of obstruction of justice, Barr concluded there was no criminal behavior on the president’s part.
However, it remains frustratingly unclear as to why Barr was offering an opinion on Trump’s criminal liability in the first place. Department of Justice guidelines state that a sitting president cannot be indicted — so the attorney general’s views are not necessarily germane. Even if Barr concluded that Trump broke the law there’s not much he could do about if. It’s Congress’s job to hold the president accountable for potentially criminal acts. By weighing in on the question, Barr was, in effect, usurping Congress’s constitutionally mandated role in making such determinations.
All of this raised legitimate concerns that Barr was putting his finger on the scale to help the president.
Last week, confirmation of those fears began rolling in. In quick succession, stories appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post in which the once leak-allergic Mueller team made clear it’s displeasure with Barr’s conduct.
According to the Times, Mueller’s investigators were angry about Barr’s characterizations of their inquiry, which they said “were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated.” The Post said the evidence gathered by Mueller on obstruction of justice “was alarming and significant,” and “there was immediate displeasure from the [Mueller] team when they saw how the attorney general had characterized their work.”
But the most troubling detail was the revelation in the Post story that Mueller’s team had prepared summaries from each section of the report, with minimum redactions, that “could have been released immediately — or very quickly.”
Why didn’t Barr simply release the summaries prepared by Mueller’s team? Why put his spin on their conclusion — spin that now seems inaccurate?
Moreover, why has the report still not been released?
The answer, unfortunately, feels increasingly obvious: Barr is protecting the president. Barr’s summary quickly created a public narrative on the report that provided huge political benefits to Trump. Barr now appears to be purposely dragging his feet on releasing the full report, for fear that it will embarrass the president.
Far too many in the media took the bait, immediately trumpeting Barr’s summary of the report and some even castigating reporters and pundits for allegedly getting the Russia story wrong.
But did they? There is no reason, at this point, to take Barr’s summary of the Mueller report seriously. This attorney general not only was nominated by Trump — after he fired his predecessor, in part, for not doing enough to protect him from Mueller’s investigation — but before taking the job Barr also wrote an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Department of Justice that criticized the investigation. Now he’s stonewalling on releasing the report and — if Mueller’s prosecutors are to be believed — has baldly mischaracterized it to the public.
If he has skewed the report, he’s yet one more Trump administration figure openly surrendering his integrity and ethical core to a man utterly devoid of either. That’s not quite a surprise at this point. Such obsequiousness is the defining characteristic of this administration and its retinue of hangers-on and enablers.
One only had to watch Kirstjen Nielsen humiliatingly resign her position as secretary of Homeland Security this weekend to marvel at the blind loyalty shown by members of this administration to a president who has done not one thing to merit such devotion.
Nielsen was the administration point person for a policy of tearing children away from their parents. That decision should haunt her for the rest of her days. But there she was on Sunday, thrown under the bus for not being cruel enough to immigrants, and yet, as the tires bounced over her body, she was still playing the role of the loyal soldier.
With Barr it’s more of a head-scratcher, unless the inclination of Republicans to bend a knee to power has been so ritualistically ingrained on party lifers that they seemingly know no other path.
Back when he testified to Congress in his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Barr reassured members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he could “truly be independent.” As he said at the time, “I feel I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences.”
But as is so often the case with anyone deluded and morally deficient enough to work for this administration, doing the wrong thing is something of a default position, even when the consequence is one’s own honor.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.