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Politics & Policy

Three Thoughts on Barrgate

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, May 1, 2019. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

The controversy over Robert Mueller’s letter to Bill Barr strikes me as much ado about not much at all. Here are my quick thoughts:

1. Mueller’s frustration is understandable. Yes, I totally understand Mueller’s argument that Barr’s short memo “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of Mueller’s report — especially when the report itself contained easily producible summaries that did provide abundant additional details. These details are material to the overall analysis of Trump’s conduct and material to any impeachment inquiry. Yet Mueller is a prosecutor employed by the Department of Justice to investigate actual and potential criminal activity and not an investigator employed by Congress to consider the case for impeachment. It was entirely fair for Barr to focus on the top-line legal conclusions in his initial statement.

2. Mueller’s frustration quickly became moot. Within days, Barr released the entire report, with minimal material redactions. The American people have the opportunity to read every word, and so do members of Congress who may seek impeachment. Barr’s initial memo does not change one syllable of the Mueller report, and it should be entirely irrelevant to Congress’s response. Congress has a political role to play here, not a legal role, and while the law informs the politics, Barr is not a judge. Congress is free to reach its own conclusions.

3. Media outrage places too much emphasis on Barr’s ability to influence the public. I detect in some quarters a belief that different initial framing could have changed the tenor of early coverage and materially impacted Trump’s standing with the public. I think this is wrong. The only conclusion that could have potentially tanked Trump was a finding that his campaign actively conspired with the Russian government to sway the election. Mueller clearly and unequivocally found that did not occur.

Under the available facts, the obstruction battle would be partisan trench warfare even if Barr had declined to state his own opinion. We’d be reading the exact same legal arguments today in part because the only people who took Barr’s conclusions as somehow dispositive were Trump loyalists. As I stated above, Barr is not a judge. He did not issue any sort of binding legal ruling. His subjective legal opinion is up for debate, and it has been debated, vigorously.

Opinions about Donald Trump are remarkably consistent. While there are significant events that might move the needle between now and the election — a recession, a bungled foreign crisis, irrefutable evidence of major crimes — public opinion is largely set, and each new incremental revelation of dishonesty, impulsiveness, or incompetence simply doesn’t move the needle. If Bill Barr had released Mueller’s summaries instead of his own memo, we’d be having exactly the same debates, impeachment would be just as implausible (and imprudent), and Trump’s approval rating would be unchanged. Trump’s public standing is one piece of stability in our otherwise unstable times.


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