Everyone knew the Trump years were going to be difficult. Donald Trump is a difficult person. And he did promise to blow up everything – he’d drain the swamp and pull the nation out of all of Obama’s treaties and agreements, and maybe out of NATO and the UN but certainly out of the TPP and NAFTA – we’d even stop being nice to Canadians. And of course he’d repeal every bit of Obamacare. He had other ideas. He didn’t have other ideas, but at least the “old” would be gone. That appealed to just enough voters in just the right places to make him president. Things might soon be difficult, but things would be different. But no one counted on things being absurd. His campaign manager and his first national security advisor are going to jail and his personal attorney is in jail now. Cabinet members come and go, with once scandal after another. There are unfilled senior positions everywhere in the government, with no ambassador named to this major nation or that and “acting directors” everywhere. Donald Trump never got around to a lot of things. He tweets. He gets angry and tweets even more. And he rants at his rallies – everyone is out to get him but he’ll get them, just you wait. He watches cable news. No one is quite sure of what else he has been doing. But his does generate high drama. He was a reality show star and this is his new reality show for us – loud and rude and a bit absurd – but dramatic. The show has to be dramatic.
This was the day that the show was thoroughly dramatic:
Atty. Gen. William Barr pulled out of a scheduled House appearance hours after Democrats attacked his credibility during a contentious Senate hearing Wednesday and accused him of deliberately mischaracterizing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s final report to protect President Trump.
The Justice Department said Barr would not show up for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday because the Democratic-led panel had overruled Barr’s objections and would allow staff lawyers to question him. A department spokeswoman called those conditions “unprecedented and unnecessary.”
Barr said that HE gets to decide who questions him and what they can ask. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee said no, it doesn’t work that way. They get to decide, and staff lawyers have always asked questions. There is precedence. And this is necessary. Barr shrugged. He won’t show up. In fact, no one is going to do anything:
The administration has refused to comply with a House Ways and Means Committee request for Trump’s tax returns and refused to give the House Judiciary Committee an unredacted copy of Mueller’s final report.
The president also has sued the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to block a subpoena for information about his businesses and sued a bank and accounting firm to stop them from complying with subpoenas seeking his financial records.
Congress gets nothing. Their oversight efforts are mandated by the Constitution, but what are they going to do about it? They can issue subpoenas and hold this or that Trump person in contempt, but they have no way to enforce anything at all. They cannot arrest and then jail anyone. The justice department can but that’s run by Barr – the Trump guy. And he is a Trump guy:
During his Senate testimony Wednesday, Barr repeatedly pushed back at his critics, calling the controversy over how he characterized Mueller’s work “mind-bendingly bizarre” because a lightly redacted version of the full 448-page report was subsequently made public.
He said he was “absolutely” confident in his judgment that the president did not try to unlawfully impede the investigation and he was “frankly surprised” that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice…
He also dismissed a letter of complaint from Mueller as a “bit snitty,” a hint of the growing friction between the attorney general appointed by Trump and the former FBI director who investigated the president.
That’s real enough:
Mueller wrote Barr on March 27, three days after the attorney general had provided Congress with what he described as a summary of Mueller’s conclusions. In his written response, the special counsel said Barr failed to “fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the investigation and contributed to “public confusion about critical aspects of the results.”
Despite that complaint, Barr contended that Mueller was not concerned with the accuracy of his summary but with how it was being reported by the media. And he argued that release of Mueller’s report rendered those objections moot.
So this was an argument about nothing, or not:
Democrats called for Barr to resign or at least recuse himself from investigations emerging from the Russia inquiry, while Republicans pounded the FBI and Justice Department for their conduct at the start of the probe.
“This attorney general lacks all credibility and has, I think, compromised the American public’s ability to believe that he is a purveyor of justice,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is running for president, said after the hearing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, pressed Barr about his conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice during the investigation.
“Contrary to the declarations of the total and complete exoneration, the special counsel’s report contained substantial evidence of misconduct,” she said.
In short, he’d been lying to the American people, but his boss was happy:
Trump praised Barr in an interview with the Fox Business Network, saying that Democrats were “ranting and raving like lunatics, frankly.”
And there’s the other view, that Hillary Clinton started this:
Senate Republicans rallied around Barr, praising his handling of the Russia investigation and his willingness to look into what they alleged were glaring problems in how it was conducted.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee chairman, focused on whether the inquiry was tainted by political bias from the start, noting that an FBI agent and an FBI lawyer had traded private text messages disparaging Trump.
“This committee is going to look long and hard at how all this started,” Graham said.
Republicans repeatedly returned to the FBI’s use of a dossier of unverified allegations compiled by a former British spy working for Democrats during the campaign. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked whether Barr could state with confidence that the dossier was not part of a Russian disinformation effort.
“I can’t state that with confidence,” Barr said. He added that it was not “entirely speculative” that Russian operatives may have purposefully supplied false or misleading information to the former British spy, Christopher Steele.
Barr went there. It was entirely speculative that this whole thing was all a set-up that Hillary Clinton worked out with the Russians long ago. That was the real scandal, but there was no proof at all, but he’d look into it, because it might be so, and this was really Obama’s fault:
Barr said he could not “fathom” why the Obama administration didn’t brief the Trump campaign about the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the election. Intelligence officials put out a public statement on Oct. 7, 2016, saying Moscow was behind hacks of Democratic Party emails, but they had tracked the Russian operation since the summer.
There were public statements, but yes, there was no special briefing for Trump. They assumed he watched the news, and there was this:
Barr, a longtime proponent of expansive presidential power, said Trump was justified in believing the Russia investigation was unfair because Mueller couldn’t find evidence of a conspiracy between the campaign and Moscow. He said the president had authority under the Constitution to try to shut the inquiry down.
“If it was groundless, based on false allegations, the president does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course,” Barr said. “The president could terminate that proceeding and it would not be a corrupt intent because he was being falsely accused. He would be worried about the impact on his administration.”
Trump thought this was unfair, so firing everyone and shutting everything down was his right, because this seemed to him to be unfair. It’s good to be king, or not:
Democrats pressed Barr on whether Trump’s behavior was appropriate, noting that Mueller documented the president’s attempts to fire the special counsel and otherwise impede the investigation.
At each turn, Barr provided an interpretation of the evidence most favorable to Trump.
When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is running for president, noted that Trump criticized potential witnesses for “flipping” and cooperating with prosecutors, Barr said Trump was only casting aspersions on people who lied to reduce their own prison sentences.
Barr also refused to pass judgment on Trump’s actions. Hirono asked Barr whether it was “okay” for the president to ask Donald McGahn, his first White House counsel, to lie, one of the findings in the report.
“I’m willing to talk about what’s criminal,” Barr said.
Barr was not concerned with what was okay or not. Was it a crime? If not, that’s not his business. And from there things went downhill:
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) chose to spend his allotted time interrogating Barr about the text messages between two FBI agents, which Trump supporters claim point to an institutional anti-Trump bias in the FBI.
“August 26, 2016,” Hawley told the committee, “This is a text message from Peter Strzok, a top counterintelligence investigator we now know hope launched this counterspy investigation of the president of the United States. Peter Strzok says, ‘Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart. I could smell the Trump support.'”
He continued, “You want to know what’s really going on here, why the counterintelligence investigation really happened question on why we are all really sitting here today? That’s it, right there!” the senator continued. “Because an unelected bureaucrat, and an elected official in this government, who clearly has open disdain if not outright hatred for Trump voters like the people of my state, for instance. ‘I could smell the Trump support?’ Then try to overturn the result of a democratic election.”
There was a lot of that, but this was odd:
Democrats pressed a hesitant Barr on such questions as whether a campaign contacted by a foreign government should divulge that information with the FBI.
When Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) asked Barr, he sat in silence for a full six seconds before sharing his thoughts with Congress.
“If a foreign intelligence service…” Coons began again.
“A foreign intelligence service?” Barr asked. “If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.”
But a member of a foreign government is a different thing? There’s no need to report these contacts? This was getting absurd:
Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), a former prosecutor, confronted Barr with information from the Mueller report.
“I asked you if a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction of justice, and you said yes,” Klobuchar said.
“The report found that Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House, before it, that the president repeatedly implied that Cohen’s family members had committed crimes. Do you consider that evidence to be an attempt to have a witness change its testimony?”
“No. I don’t think that that could pass muster. Those public statements he was making could pass muster as subornation of perjury,” Barr said, before Klobuchar interrupted him.
“This is a man in the highest office, in the most powerful job in our country,” Klobuchar said. “I’m trying to think of how someone would react if the president of the United States is implying, getting out there that your family members have committed a crime. So you don’t consider that any attempt to change testimony?”
Barr said that’s not a crime, which was the issue here:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) demanded to know if President Donald Trump had obstructed justice by asking White House counsel Don McGahn to change his account of efforts to remove special counsel Robert Mueller, one of the most damning parts of the obstruction claims against the President.
“Well, that’s not a crime,” Barr replied.
“So you can, in this situation, instruct someone to lie?” Feinstein asked.
Barr said yes, that’s fine, and then there’s this:
When it was Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) time to speak, she peppered Barr with questions until he was forced to admit that he had not looked at the underlying evidence in the Trump probe before writing the Barr memo.
“Now the special counsel’s investigation produced a great deal of evidence,” Harris, a Democratic presidential hopeful, said. “I’m led to believe it included witnesses’ notes and e-mails, witness interviews, testimony, which were summarized in the FBI 302 forms, former director Comey’s memos and the president’s public statements. My question is in reaching your conclusion, did you personally review all of the underlying evidence?”
Barr did not provide Harris with a satisfying answer.
“We accepted the statements in the report as factual record. We did not go underneath it to see whether or not they were accurate. We accepted it as accurate.”
“So you accepted the report as the evidence?” Harris said. “You did not question or look at the underlying evidence that supports the conclusions in the report?”
Barr said he had not. Nor, for that matter, had anyone else in his office.
The attorney general insisted there was nothing unusual about that.
“I think you’ve made it clear, sir that you have not looked at the evidence and we can move on,” Harris said.
She was clear – “You, sir, know nothing about any of this, so let’s move on to other matters.”
One blogger offers this summary of what America learned from Bill Barr on this day:
You only need to call the FBI when being offered campaign assistance by a foreign intelligence service, not a foreigner.
It’s okay to lie about the many dangles hostile foreign countries make to a political campaign, including if you accepted those dangles.
Because Trump was being falsely accused, it’s okay that he sought to undermine it through illegal means.
It’s okay for the President to order the White House Counsel to lie, even about an ongoing investigation.
It’s okay to fire the FBI Director for refusing to confirm or deny an ongoing investigation, which is DOJ policy not to do.
It’s okay for the Attorney General to call lawfully predicated DOJ investigative techniques “spying” because Fox News does.
Public statements – including threatening someone’s family – cannot be subornation of perjury.
And there’s this:
The most amazing thing is that, when Corey Booker asked Barr if he thought it was right to share polling data with Russians – noting that had Trump done so with a Super PAC, rather than a hostile foreign country, it would be illegal – Barr appeared to have no clue that Paul Manafort had done so. He even asked whom Manafort shared the data with – apparently not knowing he shared it with a guy that Rick Gates said he believes is a Russian spy…
So the Attorney General absolved the President of obstruction without having the faintest clue what actions the investigation of which Trump successfully obstructed by floating a pardon to Manafort.
Everyone knew the Trump years were going to be difficult. No one expected them to be utterly absurd.
James Comey has been thinking about this. He was the FBI director that Trump fired – over the “Russia thing” as Trump explained to Lester Holt on national television – and now he wonders what has happened since then:
What happened to the leaders in the Trump administration, especially the attorney general, Bill Barr, who I have said was due the benefit of the doubt?
How could Mr. Barr, a bright and accomplished lawyer, start channeling the president in using words like “no collusion” and FBI “spying”? And downplaying acts of obstruction of justice as products of the president’s being “frustrated and angry,” something he would never say to justify the thousands of crimes prosecuted every day that are the product of frustration and anger?
How could he write and say things about the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, that were apparently so misleading that they prompted written protest from the special counsel himself?
How could Mr. Barr go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and downplay President Trump’s attempt to fire Mr. Mueller before he completed his work?
And how could Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, after the release of Mr. Mueller’s report that detailed Mr. Trump’s determined efforts to obstruct justice, give a speech quoting the president on the importance of the rule of law? Or on resigning, thank a president who relentlessly attacked both him and the Department of Justice he led for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations”?
What happened to these people?
Well, he thinks that this happened:
Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.
But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’ to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.
And this is how that happens:
It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence. In meetings with him, his assertions about what “everyone thinks” and what is “obviously true” wash over you, unchallenged, as they did at our private dinner on Jan. 27, 2017, because he’s the president and he rarely stops talking. As a result, Mr. Trump pulls all of those present into a silent circle of assent.
Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it – this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room.
I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that. Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.
Now add this:
From the private circle of assent, it moves to public displays of personal fealty at places like cabinet meetings. While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does – you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him.
Sure, you notice that Mr. Mattis never actually praises the president, always speaking instead of the honor of representing the men and women of our military. But he’s a special case, right? Former Marine general and all. No way the rest of us could get away with that. So you praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter.
Now add this:
Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear – things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. Yet you are silent. Because, after all, what are you supposed to say? He’s the president of the United States.
You feel this happening. It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now.
You can’t say this out loud – maybe not even to your family – but in a time of emergency, with the nation led by a deeply unethical person, this will be your contribution, your personal sacrifice for America. You are smarter than Donald Trump, and you are playing a long game for your country, so you can pull it off where lesser leaders have failed and gotten fired by tweet.
Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, you tout his commitment to values.
And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.
Everyone knew the Trump years were going to be difficult. No one knew they would be this difficult. Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign saying this was a battle for “the Soul of America” – but maybe it’s too late for that now.