Russia’s decision to interfere in the 2016 election did not prompt Robert Mueller’s investigation. Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey — after asking the FBI director to pledge personal loyalty to him, and then to demonstrate such loyalty by dropping an investigation into his national-security adviser Michael Flynn — triggered the special counsel’s appointment. Which is to say: The Mueller report exists because Trump gave the public reason to fear that he was trying to compromise the independence of the Justice Department.
And on Thursday, Attorney General William Barr confirmed that those fears were well founded and that Trump’s bid to turn federal law enforcement into an arm of his White House has been a smashing success.
At a press conference shortly before the Mueller report’s release, Barr comported himself as a public-relations operative, repeating the president’s “no collusion” catchphrase multiple times, claiming that Mueller’s investigation had proved that Trump’s associates did not cooperate in Russian computer crimes (when the actual report merely said that “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges”) and suggesting that the sensationalist media bore some responsibility for Trump’s myriad efforts to undermine a federal investigation.
More specifically, Barr argued that Trump’s firing of Comey, along with the other instances of meddling Mueller identified, did not qualify as obstruction of justice — because the president sincerely believed that the investigation he was quashing was a baseless witch hunt launched by his political enemies. He further implied that the media’s irresponsible, “relentless speculation” validated Trump’s view:
In assessing the President’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion. And as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks. [my emphasis]
In these remarks, Barr suggests that the Mueller report vindicated Trump’s frustration with media coverage of Russian interference in the early days of his presidency. And yet, during that time period, Trump’s public criticisms of the Russia investigation were not based exclusively on denials of collusion. Rather, he repeatedly claimed that no Russian interference of any kind had occurred. His transition team released a statement rejecting the intelligence agencies’ analysis that the Russian government had intervened, saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Throughout his first months in office, the president repeatedly derided the notion that Russia had interfered as a “Democrat EXCUSE.”
Yet, as the news media reported from the beginning, there was in fact Russian interference. Nevertheless, Barr worded his statement to convey the impression that Mueller had vindicated the president’s frustration and discredited the media. This is not how a disinterested, independent law-enforcement official behaves.
Barr’s actual legal reasoning is a bit more defensible. In order to prove obstruction of justice, the state must establish that an individual undermined an investigation with a “corrupt intent.” Barr’s argument is, in essence, that the president did not act with a corrupt intent because he was sincerely subject to the paranoid delusion that the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference — and his campaign’s potential ties to it — was an inquisition orchestrated by his political enemies. And there’s nothing corrupt about trying to shut down a witch hunt.
Of course, the fact that Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with criminal acts of collusion does not in any way validate the president’s perception of persecution. Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign. He then repeatedly disparaged his own CIA for suggesting that Russian interference had occurred. There was an unambiguous basis for conducting a counterintelligence investigation (something Republicans at the time did not dispute). Therefore, if we accept Barr’s reasoning, Trump’s intentions were pure because he is so earnestly paranoid and narcissistic he was incapable of entertaining any explanation for the Russia investigation’s existence that did not involve a nefarious conspiracy hatched by his enemies.
This assessment is itself dubious. But it is true that proving beyond a reasonable doubt that this president is not subject to paranoid delusions would be difficult.
Making the case that Congress should not allow a paranoid, delusional man to retain command of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal seems like an easier task.