Trump supporters and the GOP are building a house of cards on Attorney General William Barr’s four-page interpretation of the Mueller report
We don’t have the Mueller report yet, but we do have the quick-and-dirty analysis of it by an attorney general who got the job because of his previous strong public statement against the idea of a special counsel and a long-held disposition to declare all presidential actions as legal.
Trump supporters and other Republicans seem delighted in Barr’s version of the conclusions, but they have built themselves a house of cards which tumbles as soon as we look at the recent history of special counsel investigations.
First to the house of cards: Barr declares that there is insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign explicitly asked Russian to swing the election to Trump. It’s true that the events that have been made public such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting and Trump’s public request that the Russians help find Hilary’s so-called missing emails suggest that there’s a lot of smoke. But the standard for finding fire when it comes to Republicans colluding with foreign entities to swing presidential elections is extremely high. We know that South Vietnam’s reluctance to come to the negotiating table in 1968 helped Nixon win. We know that Iran not freeing the hostages in 1980 helped Reagan win. And we know that Russian interference in the 2016 election helped Trump win. In all cases, there is strong documentation that the representatives of the Republican campaign in each case met with foreign entities. But in all cases, Congress and the American people found that the idea of a major party colluding with a foreign power was so horrific that the proof had to be absolutely incontrovertible—some would say a standard too high ever to be met in the real world.
Trump actually gets off easier than Nixon or Reagan when it comes to considering a possible collusion, because the idea that Trump was an unwitting stooge or a useful idiot is just as believable as that he knowingly colluded. Russia may have conducted their nefarious assault on U.S. elections because Putin and his advisors felt strongly that a Trump presidency would weaken the United States. His history overflows with examples of not only his stupidity and his willingness to break laws, but also of a vanity that makes him brag about things that didn’t really happen. Then there’s his obvious ignorance of law dictating how governments and political parties operate that may excuse him. It’s thus believable that Trump did not collude/conspire.
However one wishes to interpret the smoke of collusion and conspiracy, Mueller found no smoking gun. But reducing a 22-month investigation to that one sentence is a weak foundation for what Trump supporters and other Republicans, including Barr, are saying now. Their argument goes like this:
- Mueller found no proof of collusion or conspiracy.
- Collusion/conspiracy was the underlying crime.
- Since there was no underlying crime, it was impossible for Trump to have obstructed justice, even if there are strong indications that he obstructed the investigation.
Over the past few days, I have heard some version of this argument delivered by both avid Trump supporters and other Republicans. The logical conclusion to this line of thought, of course, is that all the emerging investigations of Trump should stop, or at least those investigations related to collusion/conspiracy and obstruction.
But if we look back at the history of impeachment we have to conclude two important if usually unspoken principles of American justice as applied to presidents:
- Obstruction of an investigation equals obstruction of justice.
- Obstruction of an investigation is not only an impeachable offense, it may be the only offense for which a president can end up being impeached in the real world.
Let’s look at history: The articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson had nothing to do with obstruction of an investigation and Johnson was not impeached. The articles of impeachment against Nixon focused exclusively on the Watergate cover-up (i.e., obstruction). Does anyone doubt that Nixon resigned because he knew he was certain to be impeached by the Senate, and then convicted by the House of Representatives? Not for green-lighting a third-rate burglary, but for leading the cover-up, i.e., for obstruction. The articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton only mention obstruction of justice, for a simple reason. Kenneth Starr and his crew had spent years going through Clinton’s past looking for both high crimes and misdemeanors and found nothing. Zilch. A clean record. All Clinton did was lie about having a consensual affair with an adult woman. Messing around on your wife is not illegal, meaning that Clinton was impeached for obstruction of justice and not for any underlying crime.
The history of impeachment proceedings and politics therefore suggest that Trump supporters and other Republicans are dead wrong to suggest that Trump can’t be charged with a cover-up because there was no underlying crime proven, or that the cover-up isn’t impeachable because there was no crime. They have built a house of cards that tumbles as soon as we remove the false foundation that a cover-up exists only when we have proof of an underlying crime. The cover-up is in and of itself impeachable, and as history has shown, perhaps the only crime that a president can commit that will lead to impeachment.
Thus it comes down to how we interpret Mueller’s evidence, which Mueller himself refused to do. So far, only William Barr and his staff have attempted to cull through the hundreds of pages of Mueller’s analysis. Barr admits that there are signs of a cover-up, but he has decided to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. Would Kenneth Starr have made the same decision regarding Bill Clinton with the same basis of facts? What about Leon Jaworski about Nixon? Or Jeff Sessions about Trump?
With all due respect to Barr, there is plenty of public evidence of obstruction. His conclusions represent the efforts of one man, one with a known predilection to having an extremely high bar of proof when it comes to presidential actions. Before we let Trump off the hook, we need others—many others—to look at the Mueller report and perhaps the raw data behind it, too. At this point, that’s the job of the House of Representatives. We can assume, thankfully, that its investigators take longer than 48 hours to do their analysis, and that they will take into account the history of impeachment proceedings in deciding whether to drop the obstruction issue.