Apr 20, 2019
Buried on Page 290 of the long-awaited Mueller report into Russia's 2016 election interference and questions of collusion and cover-up surrounding President Donald Trump was one of those rare peeks behind the curtain of our insane presidency -- exactly why the 440-page report was so highly anticipated for so long.
On May 17, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to break the news to Trump that his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey -- who was leading the probe into his election -- meant there'd now be a special counsel investigation.
Trump "slumped back in his chair, according to notes by a Sessions aide, and said, 'Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked.' "
Now, 23 months later, we finally have most of special counsel Robert Mueller's report in our hands -- but only after an obsequious and fundamentally dishonest spin campaign from Sessions' replacement as attorney general, William Barr.
It turns out that Trump's instincts in 2017 were very, very good. Mueller's work should mark the beginning of the end of his presidency. Yet that denouement probably won't happen before the 2020 election -- not with politically calculating cowards running both parties in Congress.
But consider the bizarre handling of the Mueller report by Barr, who slowly released the truth like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The AG who once pooh-poohed the Mueller probe then summarized the still-secret report not once but twice to put the president's bogus "total exoneration" stamp on it, lied about why Mueller didn't seek criminal charges on obstruction, and then held on to a redacted report for weeks to finally release it just hours before everyday Americans raced home to their Easter hams or Passover Seders where Team Trump was praying you'd forget all about it.
"It's clear AG Barr is acting as Trump's personal attorney, not America's," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter after America's top prosecutor staged a bizarre news conference 90 minutes before the report's release to propel a relentless spin machine one final time -- rationalizing the president's now well-documented attempts at obstruction.
In poker, Barr's strange and arguably unethical conduct would be called "a tell." All the president's men were very afraid of an unvarnished, un-spun Mueller report. They should have been. There were no new criminal charges, but one massive moral indictment.
"The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion," according to the opening lines of the Mueller report. Rather than recoil from an attack on U.S. democracy, Mueller found, Team Trump "expected it would benefit." Their campaign didn't commit the heist, in other words, but they were happy to scoop up all the dollar bills that fell out of the back of the armored truck.
Rather than working to prevent foreign election interference from happening again, the new president labored to prevent a true investigation into what happened. Only the determination of former White House counsel Don McGahn, we now know, to prevent the constitutional crisis of "another 'Saturday Night Massacre' " prevented Trump from firing Mueller just as he fired Comey. Probe targets were promised they'd "be taken care of" -- some of the 10 incidents of seeming obstruction that Mueller carefully examined.
Many of Trump's worst ideas about obstruction didn't happen, according to the report, only because aides have a frequent habit of not carrying out direct orders from their president. That's supposed to make us feel better about the state of American democracy?
The Mueller report also offered new insight into how lying is deeply embedded in our government. For example, when the special counsel's office asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders why she claimed Comey didn't have support from rank-and-file FBI agents, she admitted her words weren't particularly founded on anything. That's par for the course in a White House where our golfing president is said to have lied to us more than 9,000 times.
But despite the dismaying revelations about a president's dishonesty and his complete lack of respect for democratic norms, this week's real bombshell was the complete politicization of the U.S. Justice Department, on the level of some tinhorn dictator's banana republic. CNN analyst Laura Coates said the president has finally found his Roy Cohn -- a reference to the notorious fixer who mentored Trump in New York's scene during the '70s and '80s.
If Congress and the American people want to stop this country's steady drift into authoritarianism for another 21 months, the only true remedy is impeachment. Indeed, Barr's cover-up of a cover-up may have been intended to run out the clock on impeachment -- and it may be working.
The No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, told CNN: "Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment."
Very frankly, I think we're sending a terrible message to future presidents -- including sinister ones who'll hire aides that actually do carry out their orders -- if Trump's clear-cut abuses of power are allowed to go unpunished. But now Bob Mueller has kicked any final verdict on whether America is still a democracy to a Congress more comfortable with focus groups than enforcing the rule of law. In the unforgettable words of the 45th president of the United States, we're (bleeped).
© 2023 Philadelphia Inquirer
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