the national interest

Barr’s Letter Didn’t Exonerate Trump — It Vindicated Him

Another astonishing victory redefines what the presidency is. Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

The period of time since Attorney General William Barr released his summary of Robert Mueller’s investigation has been the most ebullient one for Republicans since the 2016 election. The pattern is familiar: vindication and emotional displays of dominance on the right, shock and searching self-doubt mixed with intense recriminations on the left. What unites both sides, victors and vanquished alike, is a belief that Trump has rewritten the rules of American politics.

Just as he violated every law of running for president and still won, he broke every rule a president must supposedly follow when under investigation. For generations, Americans have been instructed that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” Every defense lawyer warns subjects of investigation not to shoot their mouths off on television and especially not to tell a series of lies. Yet Trump did all these things and still prevailed.

Just as it did after the election, Blue America is confronting the delusions that led to its shocking letdown. In this case, justifiable belief both in Mueller’s capabilities and in the extensive evidence of wrongdoing by Trump’s campaign produced erroneous confidence in the legal system. That Trump’s involvement with Russia would yield a criminal violation was never anything close to a certainty.

And even if it had, the Trump presidency was never going to end in a GoodFellas-style perp-walk montage. The Senate is run by Mitch McConnell, a man who, upon being solemnly informed by intelligence officials in 2016 that Russia was interfering in the presidential election, refused to join a bipartisan statement warning Vladimir Putin to back off. No conceivable evidence would weaken Republicans’ attachment to a president their base adores. The worst-case scenario for Trump all along was an impeachment fight ending in Senate gridlock over removal, throwing the matter over to voters in 2020. Whatever fantasy some Democrats may have entertained about Mueller’s police work has given way to cold reality.

Just as it did after the 2016 election, the mainstream media has undergone ritual flagellation and self-flagellation. In the immediate aftermath of Barr’s letter, news reports concluded that Mueller had found no collusion between Trump and Russia. It followed from this premise that two and a half years of endless disclosures revealing secret contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia had been debunked. Since there was no collusion, all the reports of collusion had to be wrong.

In one prominent Wall Street Journal column that Trump has promoted, Sean Davis charged, “America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday — and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it. Last year the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize” for their coverage of the Russia scandal. Davis’s column did not identify a single error in the stories either newspaper published about Trump’s connections to Russia.

Indeed, nobody else has either. While a handful of prominent scoops came under question, very few of the underpinnings of the Trump-Russia narrative have been challenged in any serious way. That is because the premise of total exoneration insisted upon by Trump’s giddy defenders is false.

Collusion has somehow become a talismanic word removed from its common pre-2017 meaning, so let’s simply say — based on realities ranging from Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone to Donald Trump Jr.’s taking a meeting to pursue “Russia and its government’s support for Trump” — that the Trump campaign actively cooperated with Russia’s efforts on its behalf. In itself, Trump’s covert pursuit of a deal worth several hundred million dollars that would disappear if he angered Putin makes for a historic scandal.

None of these gross betrayals of the public interest may constitute a crime. (The U.S. criminal code is not exactly tailored for scenarios like foreign dictators stealing emails in order to help a mobbed-up reality-show buffoon win a presidential election.) Mueller has earned enough credibility that his decision not to bring charges of criminal conspiracy should be presumed fair.

Barr, however, has not. The attorney general’s relevant work history consists of helping a Republican administration cover up a massive scandal (Iran-Contra) and then submitting a private memo trashing Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice inquiry. Remember the furor that ensued when Bill Clinton spoke with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was overseeing an investigation of his wife, on a tarmac during the campaign? That Barr auditioned for his job overseeing an investigation of Trump by writing a pro-Trump memo makes that controversy look absurdly persnickety. Only by the degraded standards of this administration is Barr considered an adult in the room. In a normal presidency, he’d be facing daily demands for his resignation.

Barr’s letter plucks a single sentence from Mueller’s report and surrounds it with exonerating language: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.” Does “members” include or exclude unpaid outside advisers like Stone? Does “not establish” mean not prove beyond a reasonable doubt or find no evidence? Does “Russian government” include cutouts or agents, like Konstantin Kilimnik or WikiLeaks, or just official representatives of the government?

Barr does not specify, and reports have leapt to the most aggressive interpretation, deeming the issue settled and heaping scorn on those still clinging to suspicions about the president. “A day after Attorney General William P. Barr said special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III hadn’t found collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russian agents, [MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow — prime-time TV’s primary and most tenacious proponent of the conspiracy angle — still was not buying it,” wrote Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi. By turning “establish” into “found,” and “the Russian government” into “Russian agents,” Farhi advances a far stronger claim of exoneration than the line from Mueller actually made.

Mueller withheld judgment on charging Trump with obstruction of justice despite a long series of obstructive acts dating to the beginning of his presidency. A source “with direct knowledge of the investigation” tells the Daily Beast that they thought “Mueller was making a case to Congress to determine Trump’s criminality.” Instead, Barr imposed his own judgment and quashed the obstruction charge, in part because of an absence of underlying crimes. Trump, whose stated model for an AG is a Roy Cohn figure who would protect his personal interests, proceeded to gush that Barr is “incredible” and a “special, special person.”

One glaring flaw with this logic is that the shortage of evidence of underlying crimes may well have been caused by the obstruction of justice. Specifically, Trump dangled pardons to Stone and Paul Manafort, who coordinated most closely with Russians and who might have supplied testimony against their former boss. Preventing the exposure of a crime is a big reason why people obstruct justice in the first place. Barr appears to be excusing a cover-up on the grounds that the cover-up succeeded.

This is an apt expression of the Trumpist approach to the legal system in particular and public ethics in general. The legal system is a blunt instrument of power rightly used against one’s enemies. (Conservatives are now lustily demanding investigations of everybody they hold responsible for investigating Trump.) Lying is a natural and expected response that raises no suspicions, which is why the figures in Trump’s campaign who lied about their contacts with Russians are now innocent victims owed apologies by the media.

The Barr letter is not an exoneration of Trump’s conduct. It is something much worse: a vindication of his ethos.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Barr’s Letter Didn’t Exonerate Trump — It Vindicated Him