Two days before the 50th anniversary of Robert Mueller being seriously wounded while leading his platoon against a numerically superior enemy in Vietnam, his latest service to the nation was released in the form of the Special Counsel’s Report.
In a morning press conference before the release, Attorney General William Barr seemed to give a friend of three decades his due after two years of lies and slander by our president.
“I would also like to thank Special Counsel Mueller for his service and the thoroughness of his investigation, particularly his work exposing the nature of Russia’s attempts to interfere in our electoral process,” Barr said.
A few breaths later, Barr committed one of the great public betrayals of our history.
The country’s most senior law enforcement officer actually sought to justify President Trump’s mendacious attacks against Mueller and the investigation he had been appointed to conduct.
“As the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” Barr said.
In fact, the report acknowledges no such thing.
What the report does demonstrate is that Mueller conducted an exceedingly fair, determinedly thorough investigation.
Just as he had on the battlefield a half century ago, Mueller performed brilliantly.
His one mistake was to trust his supposed friend Barr.
To call Barr a human hedgehog would be unfair if the resemblance were confined to his appearance. But he also shares a hedgehog’s unique “self-anointing,” a behavior that involves licking an object whose smell the creature finds attractive until it works up a froth that it then rubs on itself.
Barr must have worked up considerable froth in the presence of the president. He smelled like pure Trump on March 24, when he offered a four-page document that was was supposed to be an honest appraisal of the evidence Mueller so carefully gathered under such trying circumstances.
Barr reeked of The Donald when he subsequently spoke of the FBI “spying” on the Trump campaign.
During his public betrayal of Mueller at Thursday’s press conference, Barr twice said there was “no collusion.” He implicitly excused even Trump’s demonstrable lies concerning an effort to fire Mueller because of fictitious “conflicts.”
As he exonerated Trump, Barr failed to note that page two of Volume II of the very document he was releasing states, “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The report further states, “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.”
Mueller apparently did not foresee that Barr would effectively see Trump exonerated anyway. Mueller also did not likely anticipate that when releasing the report, Barr would say Trump’s behavior must be put “in context” and accepted.
The report documents that Trump lied, lied, and lied again—and pressured his subordinates to do the same.
The true source of the frustration and anger that Barr describes was partly the refusal of several staffers to be as unprincipled as their president.
The most prominent of those who stood up to the president was White House Counsel Don McGahn, nephew of the late Atlantic City lawyer/fixer Paddy McGahn. The uncle cleared the way for Trump’s casinos and the nephew might therefore have been expected to be situationally flexible. But the uncle was also a thrice-wounded Marine and recipient of the Navy Cross. The report describes the nephew as responding more like a Marine than a fixer/lawyer.
The big test for Don McGahn came after Trump instructed him to have Mueller fired for supposed “conflicts,” in June 2017. Mueller would subsequently find himself in the bizarre position of investigating an attempt to stop him from investigating.
“The president cited as conflicts that Mueller had interviewed for the FBI Director position shortly before being appointed as special counsel, that he had worked for a law firm that represented people affiliated with the president, and that Mueller had disputed certain fees relating to his membership in a Trump golf course in Northern Virginia,” the report notes.
The report adds that Steve Bannon told Trump the purported conflicts were “ridiculous.” Mueller had never been interviewed for the FBI Director. He had not represented any Trump people, even if others at his very large law firm had.
As for the supposed golf course fee dispute, the report says:
“In October 2011, Mueller resigned his family’s membership from Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, in a letter that noted that, ‘We live in the District and find that we are unable to make full use of the Club,’ and that inquired ‘whether we would be entitled to a refund of a portion of our initial membership fee,’ which was paid in 1994.”
The report adds, “About two weeks later , the controller of the club responded that the Muellers’ resignation would be effective Oct. 31, 2011, and that they would be ‘placed on a waitlist to be refunded on a first resigned / first refunded basis...’ The Muellers have not had further contact with the club.”
McGahn said he would quit rather than fire Mueller on fictitious grounds, and went so far as to pack up his office. Trump relented, and that might have been that, had the “fake news” not reported the truth.
“In early 2018, the press reported that the president had directed McGahn to have the special counsel removed in June 2017 and that McGahn had threatened to resign rather than carry out the order,” the report says. “The president reacted to the news stories by directing White House officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a record stating he had not been ordered to have the special counsel removed. McGahn told those officials that the media reports were accurate in stating that the president had directed McGahn to have the special counsel removed. The president then met with McGahn in the Oval Office and again pressured him to deny the reports.”
The report continues, “The president asked McGahn whether he would ‘do a correction,’ and McGahn said no.
“The president also asked McGahn in the meeting why he had told Special Counsel’s Office investigators that the president had told him to have the special counsel removed. McGahn responded that he had to, and that his conversations with the president were not protected by attorney-client privilege.”
Trump inquired about McGahn’s habit of jotting down what was said during meetings with him. The report says, “The president then asked, ‘What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.’ McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a ‘real lawyer’ and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The president said, ‘I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.’”
Anybody who was around Roy Cohn knew that he did not want to be hampered by a record and that he always sought to make the truth whatever best suited him at the moment. And Cohn was not just Trump’s lawyer; he was young Donald’s mentor.
To read the litany of Trump’s lies as detailed in the Mueller report is to feel that Cohn’s spirit has risen from the crypt in Queens that he shares with his mother. Trump also lies about the successful firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Then there are the lies about the Mueller investigation itself. The report describes a moment on the south lawn last August: “In an impromptu exchange with reporters that lasted approximately five minutes, the president twice called the special counsel’s investigation a ‘rigged witch hunt.’”
So said the president who sought to rig the firing of a resolutely honest prosecutor.
At another moment, the report says, “The president described the special counsel’s investigation as ‘a witch hunt that ends in disgrace.’”
The actual disgrace belongs to Trump and to Barr.
In assuming the scent of the president, the human hedgehog seems to have also assumed the scent of Trump’s mentor. Cohn spoke endlessly about loyalty, but was always ready to betray a friend.
In Barr’s case, that is Mueller, whose only big mistake in the investigation was trusting him.
It’s nearly 50 years since Mueller led his platoon from potential disaster, despite a bullet wound to the thigh. This is one of the qualities that has long made America great. Barr, and Trump, and his truth-indifferent supporters, all owe Mueller an apology