Barr’s claims vs. Mueller’s facts: The Trump-Russia saga isn’t over yet
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as released on Thursday, April 18. | Jon Elswick / AP

WASHINGTON—Skepticism from Congress and legal analysts about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian disruption of the 2016 presidential election, and then GOP-nominee Donald Trump’s role in the saga, means the story isn’t over yet.

And that’s even after Attorney General William Barr, whom now-President Trump chose, repeatedly declared at an April 18 press conference, just before he released a redacted—i.e. edited and blacked-out—version of the report, that there was “no collusion” between Trump and the Russians.

Barr’s characterization drew immediate scorn, with analysts calling it a whitewash, or worse.

Barr “talked all about the facts that favored the president and didn’t provide anything that dis-favored the president,” attorney Chuck Rosenberg, a former top Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration, told NBC.

“Barr doesn’t want Americans to make up their own mind. What is he so afraid of?” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked.

Others jumped on Barr’s admission the Justice Department briefed the White House, and Trump’s personal lawyers, on the redacted report several days ago, before sending it to Congress and the public. That let Trump spin his repeated conclusions, in yet another nasty “victory” tweet of “No collusion! No obstruction!”

 AP

“The Attorney General appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump,” retorted Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., whose House Judiciary Committee is the lead panel probing Trump—and which would handle any impeachment investigation of the Oval Office occupant.

There seems to be “a propaganda roll-out conducted in coordination with the White House to control the narrative of what will be revealed,” another commentator wrote.

“Once again, Barr wants to shape the public’s perception of the report. This is on top of reports DOJ secretly briefed the White House. This is not justice. Just PR,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., tweeted. His panel is also probing the Russians’ role, and he’s a favorite Trump rant target.

But what’s really important—and a sign the saga will continue—is ongoing investigations of Trump, his company, his finances, and his campaign, especially by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, added Rosenberg.

The report itself dumps the whole mess right back in Congress’s lap.

“We concluded Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” Mueller wrote in the redacted version.

In addition, buried deep in the 448-page report is the fact that some witnesses described events that, due to encryption of communications, couldn’t be cross-checked. That means there could be further revelations, Mueller warned.

“Given these identified gaps, the office” of special counsel “cannot rule out the possibility the unavailable information would shed additional light on—or cast in a new light on—events described in this report.”

Barr spent half an hour summarizing what he called the report’s key findings: That Russian government hackers and intelligence agencies systematically interfered with the election in a variety of ways, and that the Russians did it on their own, with no coordination from or cooperation with Trump and his campaign operatives.

Neither Trump, nor his operatives “knowingly or intentionally” aided the Russians, Barr stated, nor did any other American. Nobody asked whether there was unintentional cooperation as a result of Russian internet trolls poisoning the presidential campaign. But there was. The report provides many instances where top campaign officials, including Trump’s sons and aides, retweeted fake messages from the Russians.

For example, a fake Russian message announced a “Miners for Trump” rally in downtown Pittsburgh on Oct. 2, 2016, complete with a picture of a miner with a headlamp on his hard hat. Trump campaign operatives spread it. And Trump’s own personal Twitter account retweeted a “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” message in 2017 from another Russian fake.

Barr added that Mueller found 10 episodes involving the president “that could have constituted obstruction of justice as a matter of law,” but did not. Barr repeated Mueller came to no conclusions on obstruction. “Full White House cooperation” shows Trump “had no intent” to obstruct justice, Barr claimed.

Mueller “did not indicate his purpose was to judge” obstruction “and I’m told he felt it was my prerogative” to do so, Barr said. “It’s the obligation of a prosecutor to make such decisions.”

But Mueller did indeed come to a conclusion: Buried on page 182 of the report is the statement the special counsel’s “office similarly determined the contacts between campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals either did not involve the commission of a federal crime or, in the case of campaign finance offenses, that our evidence was not sufficient enough to obtain a conviction.”

In the next sentence, it adds “prosecutorial principles” supported the special counsel’s decision to “charge certain individuals connected with the campaign with making false statements” to Mueller’s office, congressional probers, or both.

And on page 191, Mueller said his office indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for breaking federal foreign agents registration laws while working covertly for the Ukrainian government.

But Manafort and campaign officials George Papadopoulos and Carter Page had not “acted as agents of the Russian government—or under its control—during the relevant time period” of Trump’s campaign.

Barr announced his conclusions even before he sent the edited report to Congress, in CD-ROMs and posted it on DOJ’s website, starting at 11 am Eastern time. He also said Mueller and his team are free to testify to lawmakers, and the top congressional Democrat running investigations of the 2016 will probably call Mueller to the stand.

To top lawmakers and some independent analysts, Barr sounded at his press conference as if, in the words of one on MSNBC, “he was Trump’s defense counsel.” The night before, chairs of five committees probing the election, led by Nadler, asked Barr to call off the press conference.

“The attorney general appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump, the very subject of investigation at the heart of the Mueller report,” said Nadler. Barr “should let the facts of the report speak for themselves.” He also said his panel would be calling Mueller and his staff to testify.

The critiques continued after Barr ended his session.

“The process is poisoned before the report is even released,” said Schumer. “Barr shouldn’t be spinning the report at all, but it’s doubly outrageous he’s doing it before America is given a chance to read it.”

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Barr’s actions “regrettably partisan” and said the press conference was an “indefensible plan to spin the report.”

“We believe the only way to begin restoring public trust in the handling of the special counsel’s investigation is for Special Counsel Mueller himself to provide public testimony in the House and Senate as soon as possible,” their joint tweet said. “The American people deserve to hear the truth.”

Following the release of the report, John Bachtell, chair of the Communist Party USA, said that “far from ending the criminal investigation into Trump, his family, associates, and campaign, the Mueller report only reveals its breadth, extent, and complexity.” Bachtell commented that ongoing investigations in the House, Senate, and district courts will “dog the rest of Trump’s presidency, and they must continue.”

He continued, saying: “We are in the midst of a deep political crisis. Trump is the most corrupt, law-breaking, and extreme-right president in our nation’s history. His criminality has been aided and abetted by the obstruction of the GOP-dominated Senate and U.S. Supreme Court. The stakes for the 2020 elections and democracy grow by the day.”

As for Barr, he had also ducked a press conference question about obstruction of justice, since, he pointed out, a sitting president could not be indicted before impeachment and removal from office by Congress. That’s according to a Bush-era Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memo, and Barr said he consulted with that office about the report.

While Barr ducked the question of collusion, the report addresses it by noting that, under strict legal interpretation, collusion is not a federal crime.

Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan, during a news conference, Thursday, April 18 in Washington. His press conference was an attempt at spinning the conclusions of the Mueller Report in conclusion with the White House. | Patrick Semansky / AP

But conspiracy is, so Mueller investigated the possibility of that, the report says.

Mueller’s office “considered in particular whether contacts between campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals could trigger liability for the crime of conspiracy,” the report says on page 189. “The investigation did not establish that the contacts described” elsewhere in the report—including meetings in Moscow and at Trump Tower in New York—“amounted to an agreement to commit any substantive violation of federal criminal law.”

That includes violating both foreign influence and campaign finance laws, the report adds. The exceptions involved former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his operatives, but covered their work for Ukraine, before joining Trump’s drive.

While Mueller’s report deals with criminal offenses, impeachable offenses, including abuse of power, are not necessarily indictable offenses. That’s led Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., to circulate a draft impeachment resolution against Trump, her colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told a Yahoo news radio interviewer.

Ocasio-Cortez said she’s reviewing the text but believes, now, that Trump is impeachable on three counts: His breaking of the U.S. Constitution’s “emoluments clause” which bars federal officials from using their offices to enrich themselves, his “tax fraud” for undervaluing his real estate properties, and a reported offer of a presidential pardon to an immigration official if that official is arrested for splitting up families or mistreating migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Russia, she said, is part of the financial mess. “There are a lot of parts to the Russia issue that comes down to emoluments,” especially Trump’s 2016 plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow, disclosed by his lawyer/fixer, Michael Cohen. “I think emoluments kind of includes any financial misconduct in relation to Russia,” Ocasio-Cortez concluded.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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