In December 2018, President Donald Trump nominated William Barr to be the next attorney general. Trump’s original attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was cast out of Trump’s good graces after Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the investigation into the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions was a member of Trump’s campaign and therefore posed a conflict of interest, so he did the ethical thing and removed himself from overseeing any proceedings in the matter.
The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was then given the task of overseeing the investigation. Rosenstein was a career fixture in the Department of Justice, serving under three presidential administrations: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. When Rosenstein was overseeing the investigation, it was under the auspices of the Department of Justice and the FBI.
On May 3, 2017, Trump fired James Comey, the Director of the FBI. This threw most of the country into a state of panic: the President of the United States firing the head of the agency tasked with investigating him and his campaign.
As a country, we haven’t seen such a brazen act by a president since the Saturday Night Massacre on the evening of October 20, 1973. On that infamous night, President Richard Nixon, who was under investigation due to the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up, told his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation. The attorney general refused and tendered his resignation. Nixon then told his deputy attorney general. He also refused and resigned. Nixon finally approached the third highest-ranking official in the Department of Justice. He complied and the special prosecutor was fired.
After Trump fired Comey, the federal government was in a state of turmoil: the president had fired the man who was in charge of investigating him and his campaign. The parallels between the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of James Comey were on the minds of the people who lived through the event and students of history.
On May 17, 2017, in an effort to restore confidence in the federal government –specifically maintaining the integrity of the rule of law– Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to the position of a special counsel . Rosenstein stated he “…determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter.”
Mueller was regarded as a legendary figure in Washington. He served as Director of the FBI for 12 years –the term limit for FBI directors is 10 years, but he was so well regarded that Obama extended his tenure for an additional 2 years. Mueller, though a registered Republican, was renowned for his independence, thoroughness, and integrity from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Trump was well aware of Mueller’s reputation. As we later learned from Mueller’s investigation, Jeff Sessions, who was called to testify before the Mueller team, described Trump’s initial reaction when he learned Rosenstein had appointed Mueller. After Sessions gave Trump the news, he “slumped back in his chair” and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
In his moment of despair, Trump didn’t know it at the time, but there was someone scheming outside of his administration, recognizing an opportunity: William Barr. On June 8, 2018, Barr penned an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Department of Justice. In the memo, Barr argued that Trump acted within his power to fire Comey. He criticized the premise for appointing Mueller and the investigation itself. He said Trump shouldn’t be subjected to testify about possible obstruction of justice offenses before the Mueller team.
Whenever Trump learned of the memo, it must have been music to his ears. Here was Barr, a former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, writing what any reasonably-minded person would view as a 19-page cover letter for a job application. And lo and behold, out of the hundreds of eligible candidates for the position of attorney general, Trump just so happened to nominate Barr.
During his confirmation hearings, the memo was called into question. There were many Senators who believed it predisposed him to a conflict of interest in regards to how he would handle the special investigation. Nonetheless, Barr was confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. On February 19, 2019, Barr was sworn into office as the Attorney General of the Department of Justice.
As the new attorney general, Barr essentially became Mueller’s boss. Mueller was appointed as a special counsel, operating under the authority of the attorney general. There’s a different set of dynamics for a special counsel than for an independent investigator. When President Bill Clinton was being investigated for the Whitewater controversy, it was led by Ken Starr who was an independent investigator. Starr, as the title suggests, was free to investigate on his own terms, independently.
Mueller completed his nearly two-year long investigation and submitted his report to Barr on March 22, 2019. The Mueller Report is 448 pages long, not including all the relevant case files and underlying evidence. However, after only two days, Barr released a 4-page summary to the public, which gave Barr’s “principle conclusions” of the report.
Barr essentially wrote that Mueller determined there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He also wrote that Mueller was unable to find sufficient evidence of Trump obstructing justice. In the summary, Barr didn’t quote a single full-sentence from the report. He quoted only a few sentence fragments, which made some analysts suspicious.
The Barr summary set off a media firestorm. The most highly anticipated report –2 years in the making– had been completed, but was not yet released to the public. The only thing the press and the public had to base their initial impressions on was Barr’s summary.
Since the only insight into the Mueller Report was the Barr summary, it set a narrative of exoneration that spread across the country. The Washington Post’s headline read, “Mueller finds no conspiracy.” Similarly, The New York Times’s headline read, “MUELLER FINDS NO TRUMP-RUSSIA CONSPIRACY.” Trump told reporters, “It was a complete and total exoneration.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, tweeted, “A great day for America and for President [Trump]. After two years of wild anti-Trump hysteria, the President and his millions of supporters have been completely vindicated.”
On April 4, 2019, The Washington Post reported that members of Mueller’s team expressed frustration over Barr’s summary, which is significant because Mueller and his team are known for being tight-lipped. There was not a single leak from the Mueller team during the investigation. A team member said, “There was immediate displeasure from the team when they saw how the attorney general had characterized their work instead.”
On April 9, 2019, Barr testified before a congressional committee in the House. During the proceedings, Barr was asked by Representative Charlie Crist if he knew why Mueller’s team had expressed frustration with his summary. “No, I don’t,” Barr replied.
On April 10, 2019, Barr testified before the congressional committee in the Senate. Senator Chris Van Holden asked Barr if Mueller supported his conclusion that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump had obstructed justice. “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr claimed.
The only people who would have access to the Mueller Report was the Attorney General’s office. Barr would take more than a month to release the report to the public. He said he needed time to make redactions, which at the time implied Mueller had not redacted his report for a public release.
After more than a month of having the narrative of the Barr summary seeping into the consciousness of the public, Barr set a date for the release of the redacted Mueller Report: Thursday, April 18, 2019.
The timing is significant because it was released on a Thursday, which was a strategic release in terms of muffling news coverage, being at the tail end of the work week, especially considering the report is 448 pages. It takes times to read and process that many pages, therefore revelations, scope, and context weren’t going to come out immediately. On April 18th Congress wasn’t in session, Passover was taking place, and the following day was Good Friday.
The public relations strategy for the report’s release isn’t limited to just timing. On the eve of the report’s release, the Department of Justice announced Barr would be holding a press conference on the morning of April 18th. The press conference was held before the report was even released, giving Barr another opportunity to rehash and reinforce the narrative being sold to the public.
A few hours after the press conference, the redacted Mueller Report was released to the public. In the ensuing hours, days, and weeks —as reporters, analysts, lawyers, and the general public had read the report— it became evident that Barr’s summary was at the very least misleading, and at worst a concerted cover-up to minimize the political fallout from the report’s findings.
On May 1, 2019, The Washington Post and The New York Times both reported that they had obtained copies of letters Mueller had sent to Barr in the days following the release of Barr’s summary. Mueller wrote the first letter to Barr on March 25, 2019, expressing concern that Barr’s letter had insufficiently portrayed the team’s conclusions. Mueller also attached a copy of the executive summaries he and his team had written, which summarized the report. This indicates that Barr didn’t need to write a summary; Mueller already wrote one.
The second letter was written just two days later on March 27, 2019. Mueller was much more direct in his second letter, saying the Barr summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.” Mueller also added, “[The Barr summary] threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the department appointed the special counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Senator Van Holden, after learning of the existence of Mueller’s letters, has said that Barr’s testimony, claiming that he didn’t know what Mueller thought of the conclusions in his summary is “the most recent example of the attorney general acting as chief propagandist for the Trump administration instead of answering questions in a straightforward and objective manner. You now have a pattern of misleading conduct from the attorney general.”
With the revelation of the Mueller letters now surfacing, we have a much better understanding of what exactly was happening from the time Barr received the report from Mueller. Barr didn’t have to write a summary in the first place; Mueller and his team already prepared executive summaries. There was no need to wait for more than a month to release the report, which Barr claimed needed to be redacted. Mueller and his team had already made the necessary redactions. Moreover, Barr misled Congress and the American people when he claimed he wasn’t aware of Mueller’s opinion of his summary. Mueller wrote not one but two letters expressing his concern that the report’s findings were being mischaracterized.
Barr testified before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 2019, but he was brazenly evasive and unforthcoming. He used delay tactics with some Senators, trying to run out their allotted time with answers lacking substance.
He was scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee the following day, but informed the committee the night before that he refused to appear on their terms. Barr also chose to ignore a deadline set by the committee to provide an unredacted version of the report, as well as provide the underlying body of evidence gathered by the Mueller team.
Barr was not serving the interests of the American people; he was serving the interests of Trump. Instead of acting as the nation’s chief law enforcement official –upholding the rule of law– he’s acting as Trump’s defense attorney, manipulating the law.
We’re currently in the midst of a constitutional crisis. With Barr refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, refusing to appear before committees, and snubbing deadlines, the attorney general is dismissing the legislative branch of the government. He’s not only broken his oath to protect and defend the constitution, he’s waged an all-out assault against Article I of the constitution.
Trump has instructed his White House officials to ignore subpoenas from the House. The Treasury Department has refused to turn over his tax returns. He’s suing Capital One and Deutsche Bank to prevent them from turning over his financial records to the congressional committees who subpoenaed them.
It’s easy to let the constant stream of news generated by this administration to desensitize and, as a result, normalize the daily attacks on our democracy, but it’s critical that the People don’t become jaded and complacent. With the legislative branch under attack, we’re just a step away from authoritarian rule. The founder’s warned us about the fragility of democracies. If we want to continue to live under a representative democracy, we cannot let the powers vested in our representatives to become null and void.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”John Adams