May 1, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Barr’s Obstruction of Congress

He swore to tell the whole truth. He didn't.

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We know now why US Attorney General William Barr said his summary last month of Robert Mueller’s investigation was not a summary. Many had thought that his walk-back was due to criticism from colleagues in law enforcement, a reaction to complaints from government attorneys who said his four-page summary was a hatchet job unbecoming of the solemn duty to prosecute impartially justice and the rule of law.

Turns out it had nothing to do with peer pressure. Now we know that Barr said that his summary was not a summary, and that he’d release a redacted version of the special counsel’s report post-haste, because Robert Mueller himself wrote to ask WTF, Bill!

Well, not WTF. According to the Post, Mueller told Barr that:

“The summary letter the [Department of Justice] sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of [the special counsel’s] work and conclusions” (my italics).

Per Bloomberg News:

Mueller wrote that Barr’s letter created “public confusion” about important parts of the results of the special counsel’s 22-month probe. “This 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,” Mueller wrote.

Mueller saw, in other words, what everyone else saw—an attorney general who was shucking and who was jiving. Neither his summary nor the press conference that preceded the release of Mueller’s findings aimed to “clarify evidence and facts.” They didn’t even aim to “clear the president.” Both were intended to “sow confusion, muddy the water, so that the voting public can’t tell what’s true and what’s false.” That’s something you’d expect from a GOP propagandist, not the country’s top cop.

And now, as Tim O’Brien put it, Mueller has put Barr in a corner. As of this writing, Barr is before the Congress testifying again, and you can bet Democrats on the panel are going to ask: “Did you tell the truth when last we saw you, because, you know, it kinda sounds like you didn’t?” Barr said that he didn’t “know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion” on whether the president obstructed justice. Buuut … he did.

If the highest ranking law enforcement officer won’t respect the oath, why should anyone?

In his summary that was not a summary, Barr had written (and I’m quoting Bloomberg News’ Chris Strohm here) that “Mueller had closed his inquiry without deciding whether Trump had obstructed justice. Barr said that meant he needed to make the decision. He said that he, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for criminal charges.”

In fact, Strohm wrote, Mueller cited no fewer than “10 examples of efforts to interfere in the investigation and pointedly added, ‘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, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.’” Put another way: the president totally obstructed justice, but it’s up to the Congress to decide what to do about it.

Mueller was never going to indict a sitting president, because that’s not the kind of guy he is. He is, however, the kind of guy who would say, “I did my part, the rest is politics, and that means the Congress.” Yet Barr got in the way. He interfered with a constitutional order in which the Congress provides oversight of the executive. This should incite bipartisan rage. The question is what to focus on. I say the oath.

Anyone who testifies is forced to take an oath, some variation of the following: “Do you solemnly (swear/affirm) that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, (so help you God/under pains and penalties of perjury)?” There is and should be lots of wiggle room for ordinary people, but the United States attorney general is not an ordinary person. As the nation’s highest ranking law enforcement officer, he or she has an interest in the essence of the oath, which is the whole truth. Without that, you can’t have justice. Without justice, you can’t have a free society.

As I said, there’s wiggle room, but there are occasions when it’s necessary to bring the hammer down, as when an former personal attorney for the president of the United States lies to a congressional panel at the direction of the president about the president’s conduct. Michael Cohen did that, and he’s been convicted in part for lying to the people’s branch of the government. If Cohen went to prison for lying, what’s going to happen to Barr? If the top cop won’t respect the oath, why should anyone?

Mueller could have kept quiet. We should ask why he didn’t.

—John Stoehr


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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