The attorney general misled the public in seven key ways.
was willing to give Bill Barr a chance. Consider me burned.
When Barr was nominated, I wrote a cautious piece for this magazine declining to give him “a character reference” and acknowledging “legitimate reasons to be concerned about [his] nomination,” but nonetheless concluding that “I suspect that he is likely as good as we’re going to get. And he might well be good enough. Because most of all, what the department needs right now is honest leadership that will insulate it from the predations of the president.”
When he wrote his first letter to Congress announcing the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, I wrote another piece saying, “For the next two weeks, let’s give Attorney General William Barr the benefit of the doubt” on the question of releasing the report in a timely and not-too-redacted fashion.
I took a lot of criticism for these pieces—particularly the second one, in which I specifically said we should evaluate Barr’s actual performance in regard to releasing the Mueller report, and thus wait for him to act, rather than denouncing him preemptively.
Barr has now acted, and we can now evaluate his actual, rather than his hypothesized, performance.
It has been catastrophic. Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject. It is a kind of trope of political opposition in every administration that the attorney general—whoever he or she is—is politicizing the Justice Department and acting as a defense lawyer for the president. In this case it is true.
Barr has consistently sought to spin his department’s work in a highly political fashion, and he has done so to cast the president’s conduct in the most favorable possible light. Trump serially complained that Jeff Sessions didn’t act to “protect” him. Matthew Whitaker never had the stature or internal clout to do so effectively. In Barr, Trump has found his man.
As he so often does, President Trump falsely declared on “60 Minutes” that North Korea and the United States were going to war before he stepped in to thwart it.
Interviewer Lesley Stahl was having none of it. “We were going to war?”
Trump immediately retreated to safer ground, expressing a view rather than trying to assert a fact: “I think it was going to end up in war,” he said, before moving on to his “impression” of the situation.
The 26-minute interview that aired Oct. 14 was typical Trump — bobbing and weaving through a litany of false claims, misleading assertions and exaggerated facts. Trump again demonstrated what The Fact Checker has long documented: His rhetoric is fundamentally based on making statements that are not true, and he will be as deceptive as his audience will allow.
.. Trump resorting to all of his favored moves to sidestep the truth.
.. On Stahl’s first question, about whether Trump still thinks climate change is a hoax, the president dodged by saying “something’s happening.” He then completely reversed course and declared that climate change is not a hoax and that “I’m not denying climate change.”
.. Trump also falsely said the climate will change back again, even though the National Climate Assessment approved by his White House last year said that there was no turning back. He said he did not know whether climate change was man-made, though the same report said “there is no convincing alternative” posed by the evidence.
.. Trump did his usual shrug when asked whether North Korea is building more nuclear missiles. “Well, nobody really knows. I mean, people are saying that.” Among the people who are saying that are U.S. intelligence agencies, who have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile and is instead working to conceal its weapons and production facilities.
.. Even when he adjusts his rhetoric, at times contradicting what he has just said, Trump almost always appears to believe firmly in what he is saying.
.. On trade, the president continues to suggest that deficits mean the United States is losing money: “I told President Xi we cannot continue to have China take $500 billion a year out of the United States.”
That’s wrong. The trade deficit just means Americans are buying more Chinese products than the Chinese are buying from the United States, not that the Chinese are somehow stealing U.S. money.
.. Trump also continues to misstate the trade deficit with China. It’s not $500 billion, as he told Stahl; it was $335 billion in 2017
.. Curiously, he denied to Stahl that he ever said he was engaged in a trade war with China, even though he has said and tweeted it many times, including on Fox News last week.
.. He also falsely said that “the European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade.” That’s a misreading of history, at best. The E.U. got its start shortly after World War II as the European Coal and Steel Community — an early effort to bind together bitter enemies such as Germany and France in a common economic space to promote peace.
.. Trump surfaced another old favorite knock on U.S. allies — “we shouldn’t be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe.” Actually, the United States pays 22 percent of NATO’s common fund. Trump keeps counting U.S. defense spending devoted to patrolling the Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world as part of NATO funding.
When it was pointed out that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former general who served in the military for 44 years, says he believes NATO had kept the peace for 70 years, Trump sniffed, “I think I know more about it than he does.”
.. Questioned about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump conceded that “they meddled.” But he added, “I think China meddled, too.” When Stahl said he was “diverting the whole Russia thing,” Trump insisted he was not. “I’m not doing anything,” he demurred. “I’m saying Russia, but I’m also saying China.”
There is no evidence China engaged in the same disinformation effort as Russia, which intelligence agencies have said was designed to swing the election toward Trump.
.. Finally, Trump continued his habit of mischaracterizing what his predecessor did. He claimed that Barack Obama “gave away” the Crimea region of Ukraine, when actually Russia seized it and Obama then led an effort to impose sanctions in response.
.. In one of the testier back-and-forths, Trump tried to shut down Stahl with one line that was indisputably true: “I’m president,” he said, “and you’re not.”
Former U.S. district judge John S. Martin, writing in The Post to debunk the baseless proposal by House Freedom Caucus members to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, observes:
The actions of the Freedom Caucus members are not only baseless, they are also shameful. While they call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Rosenstein, it may be more appropriate to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate an attempt to corruptly obstruct justice by members of Congress who so obviously use their office to intimidate the deputy attorney general and to undermine the credibility of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
.. Their inexcusable acts include:
- The caper by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in which he scurried over to the White House to review classified documents and then tried to push the fake “unmasking” scandal;
- Nunes’s memo falsely stating that information about the Christopher Steele dossier’s origins was omitted from the Foreign Intelligence Security Court warrant application to conduct surveillance on suspected spy Carter Page;
- The outing of a confidential intelligence source;
- The badgering of Rosenstein for documents from an ongoing investigation and the bogus impeachment articles cooked up by Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio);
- False accusations against the FBI (e.g. accusing FBI officials of aiding Hillary Clinton in the campaign) that were discredited by the inspector general’s report; and
- Refusal to obtain relevant documents (e.g. the blocked phone number that Donald Trump Jr. called in close proximity to the Russia meeting in June 2016).
.. Congressmen, Trump lawyers and White House aides conferring with intent to mislead investigators and the public, to disable the inquiry and/or to discredit law enforcement sounds an awful lot like obstruction of justice. Conversations or documents relating to that sort of conspiracy are in no way privileged.
.. Norman Eisen, Laurence Tribe and Caroline Frederickson wrote in February: “Endeavoring to stop an investigation, if done with corrupt intent, may constitute obstruction of justice. Plotting to assist such action may be conspiracy to obstruct justice. Normally, what is called ‘speech or debate immunity would provide a strong bulwark against any such liability for Mr. Nunes or his staff.” However, they argued, “Mr. Nunes and company may have ranged so far afield that those protections no longer apply. Under the clause, mere peripheral connection to legislative acts cannot serve as a fig leaf to shield criminal conduct.” They argued that if “a member or staff employee of the House Intelligence Committee engaged with the White House to stifle the special counsel inquiry, it would be difficult to see how such collaboration would be” protected by the speech or debate clause.
.. An investigation into Republican House members’ antics is critical if we want to hold them responsible for actions injurious to our criminal justice system. It is also necessary in order to uncover who if anyone they were colluding with on the White House side of the operation. Any White House official and/or lawyer — with or without the president’s knowledge — scheming to obstruct the investigation in concert with members of Congress needs to be investigated and held accountable.
.. Rather than simply play defense on behalf of Rosenstein and the Russian investigators, defenders of the rule of law need to go on offense, demanding Nunes, Meadows and Jordan come clean on their actions in support of a president trying to thwart a legitimate investigation. It all needs to come out.
We know that to the media, since at least July 2016, Mr. Trump and campaign officials lied, repeatedly and often, about not having had contacts with Russian officials. As late as August 2017, President Trump held that line, telling The Wall Street Journal: “There’s nobody on the campaign that saw anybody from Russia. We had nothing to do with Russia.”
This sustained pattern of lying to the media about any Russian contacts was almost surely done by design and coordinated from within Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
Were statements to federal authorities also done by design and coordinated?
If you direct your attention to the series of known cases when Trump officials have not told the truth to the F.B.I. and to Congress about Russian contacts, what emerges is a likely conspiracy on the part of Mr. Trump’s inner circle to mislead federal officials.
That’s where the stakes could not be much higher for the White House. Not only is it a crime to lie to federal authorities; it’s also a crime to encourage others to do so, whether or not they follow through with crossing the line of perjury.
.. We have two undisputed cases, through the indictments of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, the former foreign policy adviser. It is difficult to see how the two men could expect to get away with it. Who would lie to the F.B.I. if one’s colleagues, interviewed at a later date, would contradict the false account of the same set of events?
.. We now know Mr. Flynn’s phone call during the transition in December 2016 with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, was coordinated with other senior transition officials meeting at Mar-a-Lago, in Florida. When it came to Mr. Flynn’s F.B.I. interview, a story was already in place. The day before, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, had adamantly denied that Mr. Flynn spoke to the Russians about sanctions. So to get away with lying to the F.B.I., whether or not he alerted White House officials to the meeting beforehand, Mr. Flynn would presumably have to count on the others sticking to that lie, too.
The same goes for Mr. Papadopoulos, who risked going to prison for lying to the F.B.I. As with Mr. Flynn, his communications with the Russians were well known and approved by senior campaign officials.
.. The pattern goes on from there. If Mr. Flynn was counting on others to cover his tracks, he seems to have calculated correctly. For example, K. T. McFarland, the former deputy national security adviser who also served on the transition team, told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, in writing, that she was not aware of Mr. Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. That was a lie, disproved by court documents revealing her close strategizing with Mr. Flynn before and after the call and by the news report of her email coordinating on the matter with senior members of the Trump transition team at Mar-a-Lago. (Mr. Spicer was one of the email’s recipients.)
.. Perhaps Mr. Sessions felt he had to lie during his confirmation process. Mr. Trump had told reporters, at his first news conference as president-elect, that nobody associated with the campaign was in contact with any of the Russians.
.. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, skipped over multiple meetings with Russians on his security clearance forms, which were vetted by the F.B.I. Mr. Kushner’s omissions were so alarming that it caused Charles Phalen, the sitting director of the government bureau responsible for clearing these forms, to tell Congress, “I have never seen that level of mistakes.”
.. Finally, Donald Trump Jr. may also have lied to congressional investigators by testifying that he did not inform his father of the Trump Tower meeting with Russians. There is no hard public evidence to prove this, but it is hard to fathom that Don Jr. didn’t inform the candidate of a meeting that was set up on the proposal, as far as he knew, for the Russian government to aid the campaign and that he thought deserved the direct involvement of Paul Manafort, then the campaign manager, and Mr. Kushner.
In short, if you block out much of the noise that has surrounded the Russia investigation and focus on certain public information, you can see the outline of a concerted effort to mislead federal officials.
.. How could campaign officials, or the president himself, expect to get away with any such scheme, especially when encouraging others to commit perjury is a serious federal offense?
Maybe they didn’t anticipate a full investigation. The president admitted that he felt if Mr. Sessions had only held on, the attorney general would have shut down the Russia investigation: “If Jeff Sessions didn’t recuse himself, we wouldn’t even be talking about this subject.”
.. With Mr. Flynn, Mr. Papadopoulos and now Steve Bannon cooperating, if and when the time comes for Mr. Trump’s interview, Mr. Mueller’s team will be well prepared to ask the president about his own knowledge and involvement.