An investigation into whether the president of the United States committed treason has devolved into a squabble over Attorney General Bill Barr’s brief letter saying that he didn’t.
We’ve gone from Donald Trump allegedly betraying the nation to Bill Barr allegedly betraying the nation, from potential Trump impeachment to potential Barr impeachment.
Barr’s offense, of course, is writing a quick letter summarizing the top-line conclusions of the Mueller report. Ever since, he’s been the focus of conspiracy theories and the target of smears.
The anti-Barr fury reached a new level with the news that Robert Mueller wrote him a letter complaining about the summary. Not since the Zimmermann telegram has a missive so exercised Washington, at least the segment of it that’s been in a perpetual lather of outrage since November 2016.
Let’s be clear: If Barr wanted to cover for Trump, he could have crimped the Mueller probe, sat on the report or redacted the report into meaninglessness. He did none of the above.
No one can claim his summary of findings was inaccurate. According to Barr, even Mueller conceded as much in a phone call. Mueller instead complained about the press coverage of the Barr summary, which isn’t, strictly speaking, the attorney general’s responsibility.
Barr’s conduct is defensible on its own terms. He wanted to get the basic verdict out because the investigation had so roiled our national life, especially the possibility that there was collusion with the Russians.
When Mueller came back to him with a request for release of the summaries from the report, Barr declined because he didn’t want to get into piecemeal releases when the full report would soon be available.
That’s what makes the controversy so nonsensical. Barr went further than required by the regulations to release the entirety of the report, letting everyone decide for themselves. What else was he supposed to do?
Of course, Barr’s summary letter inevitably lacked the narrative force and details of the 400-page report, but we know that ... because he released the report.
The notion that Barr was deceptive in congressional testimony is similarly absurd. In an exchange with Sen. Chris Van Hollen last month, he was asked if Mueller supported his “conclusion,” meaning his judgment that the president didn’t obstruct justice. Barr accurately said he didn’t know.
Rep. Charlie Crist asked Barr if he knew what Mueller officials anonymously complaining about his letter were referring to. Barr said he didn’t (he presumably hadn’t talked to these anonymous officials), but volunteered that they probably wanted more information out.
Ultimately, the firestorm over Barr’s letter is a misdirection, and he’s a scapegoat. If Robert Mueller wanted to recommend charging Trump with obstruction of justice, he could have done so. Instead, he punted, and now he — or people around him — is upset that the Barr letter accurately stated his convoluted not-guilty/not-exonerated bottom line.
As for the Democrats, if they disagree with Barr’s conclusion that Trump didn’t commit a chargeable crime, it is fully within their power to impeach the president for abuse of power.
Democrats still want someone else to do their work for them. First, they wanted Mueller to blow Trump out of the water, and now they want Barr to adopt a frankly adversarial posture toward the president.
Barr is not the one distorting procedure or norms here. It’s the Mueller team that declined to make a call on whether Trump had committed a crime or not (the job we ordinarily ask prosecutors to do), yet cataloged his conduct in a quasi-indictment written for public consumption (which prosecutors aren’t supposed to do) and, now we know, cared very much about the media narrative around its report (a public relations or partisan question, not a legal one).
That Barr and his letter are the focus of such political and media ire is a symptom of the lunacy of this era, rather than anything rotten in his Department of Justice.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: