The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Barr Letter Interlude

William Barr during a break in his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 15, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

One of the peculiar consequences of the intense short-sightedness that now characterizes our public life is that every significant event immediately sets off instant commentary about how the future will be shaped by this latest twist—as if another twist won’t make us basically forget this one in five minutes. We all do this, and it’s hard to avoid doing it. But it leads us again and again to lose our perspective. We have trouble understanding ourselves as living in the middle of a story, rather than at its end.

This problem stands out especially starkly today, in contemplating the commentary about the conclusion of the Mueller investigation. Everyone is responding to what is obviously an interim step in the process of digesting the investigation’s findings. The special counsel submitted his report to the Attorney General, who has then summarized the key findings for the Congress and the public. No one outside Mueller’s team and the upper ranks of the Department of Justice has read the report. There is every reason to think that Barr has summarized the findings honestly and accurately—he is a man of good character, and it would in any case be foolish to mislead the country in a way that would soon be discovered. But the power of a document like Mueller’s report, particularly outside the strict context of a court of law, is bound to be in the details—in the volume of evidence, its character, its most salacious particulars. And those details will be public, probably fairly soon, but they are not public yet.

As a junior staffer in Newt Gingrich’s office in 1998, I had an unusual vantage point on the release of the Starr report. In the early days, before the full report had been made public, I helped out the little makeshift group of leadership staffers who took judiciary committee members of both parties to a room in the Ford Building on Capitol Hill where they had an opportunity to read the documents. I didn’t have access to the text myself, but I got to witness its effect on some of the first people to see it. It was reasonably clear that the shock on their faces when they left that room was not a function of reading the executive summary. The details, even some of those that had already been known publicly, had a powerful effect when laid out in one place by an able prosecutor. And the public soon learned the same when the report was released.

To the extent that such details of wrongdoing exist in this case, they probably do not involve any collusion with Russia. That seems evident from Barr’s quotes from the report, though I’ll admit it has also been my prejudice from the outset, as I’ve argued here. No one who witnessed any part of the bumbling buffoonery of the Trump campaign could quite believe these people could be involved in an international conspiracy. Wrongdoing is more likely to involve the ways in which the president behaved, used his power, expressed himself, and dealt with underlings and with law enforcement in response to the investigation of Russia’s interference in our election and of his campaign’s involvement in any such interference. We probably already know most of what the special counsel discovered about these things, but not all—and in any case having it all laid out in one place may mean it adds up in ways that will be striking.

Now, judging Trump harshly for his response to false accusations is unfair. Getting angry about being railroaded is not a failure of character. But it’s worth remembering that Trump’s resistance to the investigation has not been all about the charge that his campaign was involved in Russia’s election interference. Trump has resisted the very idea that Russia interfered, presumably because it might cast a shadow on his victory and so on his legitimacy. He was also very resistant to inquiries into behavior by his underlings in the campaign, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and other now-convicted criminals. His intervention in those facets of the investigation can’t so easily be waived away as the righteous indignation of the innocent.

And yet, much indignation—by Trump and by others—is justified by the nature of the investigation and especially by how it began. The FBI found itself in an impossible situation in 2016, faced with two major-party nominees who both seemed like unprecedented national-security risks—the one having broken the laws that govern the management of classified information and the other enveloped in a semi-criminal network of corrupt fixers with bizarre foreign links. There were no real precedents to follow, and no way to proceed that could be fair to the candidates and so also to the next president. The agency then made matters worse by assigning to the investigation some people who clearly detested and looked down on Trump, and otherwise behaving unprofessionally.

About a year ago, I wrote around here that I thought the two sides to the fight between Trump and the DOJ each had a strong argument, but not about Russia. Collusion seemed implausible, but Trump’s defenders could point to FBI misbehavior in the investigation, and his critics could point to Trump’s misbehavior in office. That still seems to be where we are, and what we know so far suggests the Mueller report doesn’t really make either of those look less bad than it looked before. And yet the Attorney General’s summary of the report is likely to take some of the steam out of both of them—because it’s harder for an (essentially) exonerated person to complain about a witch hunt and it’s harder to argue obstruction when the process was concluded and found no underlying crime. The logic of “all’s well that ends well” undermines both. Neither of these is a legal argument, and both sides will certainly continue pushing their political arguments on both fronts too, but the way Barr has been extremely careful to frame the investigation’s conclusions will probably weaken both sets of arguments.

The question is whether the report itself frames those conclusions (especially about the president’s behavior) in the same general way. We are not at the end of the Mueller drama. We are in an interlude created by the Attorney General’s decision to summarize the report for the public before releasing it. In this period, however long it lasts, the major remaining sources of indignation and concern may be temporarily drained of their power some. That will affect the ultimate outcome: It will be harder to revive the passion of the partisans after some period of talking as though the story is at an end. But depending on the details and arguments in the report, it may turn out to be harder to revive one side’s passion than the other’s—and it isn’t obvious right now which that would be.

When we look back upon this sordid story, we won’t remember its conclusion as defined by Barr’s letter but by Mueller’s report. And we have yet to see what that report says, so we don’t actually know exactly what that definition will consist of. Maybe everything proceeds as expected from here. But is that how things have gone so far?

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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