Marooned in a blizzard of lies.
By Michael Winship
Ladies and gentlemen, today’s Final Jeopardy question in the category Lost Americans: Where was Special Counsel Robert Mueller?
He wasn’t standing there at the Department of Justice press conference Thursday morning, despite the fact that the event was about Mueller’s report on Russia, President Donald Trump and his possible acts of obstruction. Attorney General William Barr insisted that the purpose of the briefing was to “discuss my response to that report.” and not, by implication, a platform from which Mueller might steal the spotlight or worse, protest the jabberwocky that came flying out of the AG’s mouth.
In any case, how could you really call that thing a press conference when Barr only answered a handful of questions following a prepared statement in which he followed the lead of his boss, aka the Cheeto Benito, and insisted there was no collusion five times? Barr quickly walked off the stage when asked, “Is it impropriety to come out and what it appears to be spinning the report before the public has a chance to read it?” And that was that.
Except that an hour or so later, the actual report did come out, and even with its redactions, quickly provided further proof that the once highly-regarded Barr has been spinning like a top, acting more like the president’s disingenuous, sleazy, personal mouthpiece than living up to his job description. That, by the way, according to the DoJ’s official website, is to “represent the United States in legal matters.” Not Trump, Mister Barr. Us.
Here was Barr’s excuse for Trump’s outrageous behavior as he repeatedly tried to impede first, FBI director James Comey, and then Mueller: “[T]he 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.”
Okay, so suppose I just held up several convenience stores and murdered innocent bystanders in the process — it’s okay to have done it if I was “frustrated and angered?” I guess I missed that episode of “Law and Order.” No wonder Colin Jost at “Saturday Night Live” calls Trump “white OJ.”
As for Russia, the real Mueller report, and not the Barr make-believe version, does establish the Trump campaign was more than open to Russia’s come ons, just not to the point of active conspiracy: “[T]he investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away.”
As per the Washington Post, “The report detailed a damning timeline of contacts between the Trump campaign and those with Russian ties — much of it already known, but some of it new.”
When it comes to Trump’s attempts at obstruction, contrary to Bill Barr’s claims that the White House had “fully cooperated,” there were ten episodes outlined and, according to the redacted Mueller report, “… if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
In other words, no exoneration. Plus, contrary to Barr’s belief, Mueller’s team wrote, “The Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize the president… no person is above the law.” Or, as Jeff Toobin succinctly put it at CNN, “If this isn’t obstruction of justice, I’d like to see what is obstruction of justice.”
As is so readily detailed in the Mueller report, Trump, members of his administration and his campaign team lied. They lied for him and then they lied again, and then they lied some more, building a great steaming pile of perfidy, although in some instances, according to The Post, “it appears Trump may have been saved from more serious legal jeopardy by his own staffers, who refused to carry out orders they thought were problematic or legally dangerous.”
The president tried to get former White House counsel Don McGahn and erstwhile campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to figuratively kneecap colleagues and even they wouldn’t do it.
(Trump told Lewandowski to browbeat former Attorney General Sessions into ending the investigation and ordered McGahn to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenfeld to fire Mueller, an action McGahn described to chief of staff Reince Priebus as “crazy shit.” The president’s demand of McGahn came just after Mueller’s appointment was announced. The news reportedly led to Trump’s already immortal, exasperated cry, “Oh my God. This is the terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f-cked… This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”)
As a song by jazz pianist and writer Dave Frishberg goes, we’re all “marooned in a blizzard of lies” when it comes to the Trump gang, awash in unethical and immoral behavior. Lying is as natural as breathing to these guys, and like so many of the bankers, real estate moguls, Wall Street types and other highrollers from whose unholy culture they’ve picked up this kneejerk habit of mendacity, many of the Trump posse could in fact get away with it. Their crimes may be, in the words of former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, “illegal but not chargeable.”
But like Trump and so many of his minions, if you think that with the publication of this partially redacted report, the president’s problems are over, forget about it. This is the beginning, not the end.
For one, the report revealed an additional fourteen criminal referrals to other jurisdictions and so far we only know details about a couple of them because most of them were blacked out in the public version of Mueller’s findings. And the report itself concludes “that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
Columnist EJ Dionne writes, “Mueller’s findings do not end Trump’s troubles. On the contrary, he is now in greater jeopardy because we know even more about what he did. Congress must take all the further steps required to ensure accountability.”
Jeff Toobin noted that Mueller’s 448 pages are “all but an explicit invitation for Congress to impeach the president,” and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler announced soon after the report’s release, “The responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions.” Whether this means impeachment or a ratcheting up of investigations in the House remains unclear.
As for the elusive Robert Mueller, Attorney General Barr said Thursday morning that he has no objection to Mueller appearing before Congress and Nadler has asked him to testify no later than May 23.
On the off chance Mueller were to refuse, the irony would be overwhelming, even blackly comic. No, the same honesty and integrity with which he seems to have approached the creation of this document must lead him to sit down across from Nadler’s committee and openly and publicly speak further truths.
And Barr? You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. As has happened to others, the corrupting influence of this president has again besmirched what to many seemed a once reputable reputation, reducing a longtime public servant to humiliating obeisance. Why this should be so remains a mystery. Is it about power restored, status, money, some weird strain of Potomac fever?
To paraphrase Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (and the Bible), it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Trump?
Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship