I’ve grown increasingly bothered by the justification William Barr made for Trump’s obstruction of the Russian investigation. Basically, the Attorney General of the United States argued that because the President was “frustrated and angered” about the investigation into the Russian ties he kept lying about, his obstruction was not corrupt.
In assessing the President’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President,  federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning,  there was in fact no collusion. And 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. Nonetheless,  the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents,  directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time,  the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation. Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.
There are, of course, a slew of errors in this passage, which I address by number.
- Federal Agents and prosecutors weren’t investigating the President until after he had committed several acts of obstruction
- The report doesn’t address collusion, it addresses a criminal conspiracy; Roger Stone’s actions, done at the behest of Trump, probably reach any measure for “collusion”
- There’s no evidence that the Steele dossier drove the FBI investigation — and certainly not the Mueller investigation that Trump obstructed
- The only leak that had a substantial effect on this investigation was the one about Flynn being picked on Sergei Kislyak’s FISA intercept, but it may not have been illegal (if John Brennan authorized the leak, for example, it would have been done with the consent of an original classification authority), and Flynn’s actions would have been included as part of the already-predicated counterintelligence investigation into him in any case
- Trump personally refused to cooperate with the investigation; his responses to Mueller’s questions are outright contemptuous
- Trump knew several of his aides were lying and encouraged that
- Trump was probably involved in withholding key emails about the Moscow Trump Tower project and probably had a role in attempts to withhold Transition emails possessed by GSA
But the thing that has really begun to irk me is the Attorney General’s claim that, “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,” which is the core of Barr’s excuse for the President’s obstructive acts: the President was frustrated and so it’s cool that he totally undermined rule of law.
Barr is largely wrong about what the report says about the President’s anger and frustration, though, and to the extent he’s not, he’s basically arguing it’s cool for the President to be angry that the system worked as it should.
To show how much he exaggerates that, I reviewed below what the Mueller Report says about the President’s:
- Motivations for obstructing the investigation
There are several categories of references that are on-point to Trump’s feelings about the investigation. In the two most persistent cases, Trump was angry that people engaged in ethical behavior. He was angry and frustrated that Jeff Sessions followed ethics guidelines and recused from the investigation. He was angry that Comey adhered to DOJ guidelines (both general and specific with respect to this investigation) about confirming or denying targets of an investigation (though the report also describes Trump denying he was angry). So one category of evidence that shows Trump was angry or frustrated — which the Attorney General claims justifies his obstruction — involves Trump reacting emotionally because people did the ethically correct thing.
In one case, he was angry that his administration got caught doing something improper. Trump was angry that Mike Flynn’s totally inappropriate secret efforts to undermine Obama’s policy towards Russia got exposed. He also was angry at Flynn for other reasons, though. Yes, Trump may be right to be angry if this was illegally leaked (something that hasn’t yet been proven), but ultimately he’s pissed that he got caught doing something wrong.
In the sections that deal with Trump’s motives for obstructive acts, the report describes what might be described as frustration about two things. First, that the focus on Russia (both the investigation and the press coverage of it) delegitimized his victory. If Barr thinks this justifies obstruction of justice, it suggests that he thinks Trump is entitled — after having cheered Russia’s hacks of his opponent — not to have it reflect on his own victory. Effectively, the Attorney General seems to think Trump should be able to benefit from help from a foreign adversary — with his encouragement!! — and then have no one mention that, which is an alarming prospect.
The report also describes how Trump was frustrated that he was stymied in foreign policy, most especially in his desire to work with Russia, by the focus on the Russian investigation. This is particularly interesting, as some of the policies Trump was thwarted in pursuing — reversing sanctions on Russia — might have been proof of a quid pro quo (remember, Trump refused to answer all questions about sanctions, even one covering the election period). Given the report’s silence on the most alarming interactions with Trump (such as Putin’s involvement in writing the June 9 statement), there could be more to Trump’s frustrations, which any Attorney General pretending to care about American national security should attend to. In any case, while the Constitution permits the President great leeway to set the country’s foreign policy, it does expect the President will be subject to political pressure on those decisions. That Trump is frustrated that the manner in which he won — plus his encouragement of it and his subsequent lies about it — has constrained his ability to work with Russia is not something that should justify obstruction of justice.
Some of the other descriptions of Trump’s response to the investigation describe him making false claims — denying that Russia did the hack, preferred him, and also denying he had business with Russia. That is, Trump was not denying the allegations in the dossier, but was denying other things that were, in fact, true. That’s also not a basis to obstruct an investigation, that it will expose your lies.
For most of the instances after Trump himself became the subject of the investigation, the Mueller Report concludes Trump was motivated out of a desire to shield his own conduct — that is, pure corrupt obstruction.
In short, even to the extent that the Mueller Report confirms Barr’s claim that Trump was motivated out of frustration, in the most justifiable case (that Trump was prevented from working closely with Russia), Barr is excusing obstruction of justice because Trump got political pressure he deserved for his actions. But in most cases, Trump was frustrated by the ethical actions of others, that he got caught doing something wrong, that winning while cheering the interference of a hostile power aiming to help you undermines your legitimacy. That any lawyer would think such things — which basically amount to a democracy holding someone accountable — would justify obstruction of justice is downright insane.
Nevertheless, that’s where Attorney General Barr has taken us.
Read the rest at Emptywheel