Over on Earth 2 or in some other alternative universe, news of the Barr report — the abridged Sunday-night “book report” version of the Mueller report that’s been released to the American public so far — struck with the political impact of a powerful asteroid.
Confirmation of an extensive Russian plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A body of evidence for Congress to probe obstruction of justice by President Trump — in the same type of investigation that built an impeachment case against Richard Nixon. This after criminal charges against 37 people: The Russian trolls and hackers and some key Trump allies — including his campaign manager, his personal attorney and his national security adviser.
But here on the hell of Earth 1, in 2019, the Barr report splashed down in tainted waters. What Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General William Barr squeezed out of his political juice machine was a four-page concoction spiked with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s other main ingredient — a finding that unusual contacts between Team Trump and Team Russia never rose to the level of a chargeable criminal conspiracy — to keep Trumpland and its Greek chorus of Fox News Channel pundits giddy with intoxication for months.
President Trump stood on a Florida tarmac and jubilantly called the Barr report on the unseen Mueller report "a complete and total exoneration” — ignoring the Mueller statement that the report doesn’t exonerate him on obstructing justice. But such statements by Trump and his allies still managed to drive the early news coverage from reporters who — just like the rest of us — have only seen several dozen words from the actual Mueller report so far.
It this feels vaguely familiar, it should. This is the GOP playbook that was perfected during the 2000 presidential election and the Florida recount. Declare victory first and as loudly as possible (preferably on Fox) and plow through any real-world uncertainty or facts to the contrary, and make anyone — the media, Democrats — who challenges the Republican version of reality into a bitter, sore L-on-forehead loser.
Let’s be real. If the Mueller report were “a complete and total exoneration” of the president and his minions, Sean Hannity would have been waving the massive file on your TV screen Friday night. Instead, on Monday we had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to allow even a non-binding vote on making the report public, That’s a tell, and also a familiar pang of recognition for those of us who lived through moments like the Pentagon Papers, COINTELPRO or Iran-Contra. There are things our government doesn’t want us to know. Again.
Despite the outrage of getting the four-page Barr report instead of the Mueller report, there are still some important takeaways:
1. Vladimir Putin and Russia wanted Trump to be your president, and took extensive “active measures” to help that happen. The so-called “witch hunt” of the Mueller probe nonetheless eliminated any doubt that Russian spies, hackers and trolls launched a campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and either woo or discourage U.S. voters, even if it’s impossible to gauge its full impact on the November 2016 election. The same people who spent months denying Russia’s role — including Trump’s speculation about a “400-pound hacker" in his bed — now shrug at being proved wrong.
2. Mueller’s findings on obstruction of justice — a key part of the investigation that Team Trump is eager to pretend never existed — remain shrouded in mystery, thanks to Barr. According to a report in the Daily Beast, the special counsel wanted Congress to decide whether Trump — through moves such as firing FBI director James Comey or dangling pardons before key figures, among others — committed obstruction. That move would mirror how the obstruction issue was handled by the special prosecutors investigating President Bill Clinton (ultimately impeached) and President Richard Nixon (who resigned in the face of certain impeachment).
3. On the issue that Mueller called “coordination” but most folks called “collusion” and became the public and media obsession for everybody from the president (who by the end was saying “No collusion!!” to people instead of “Hello”) to the strangest internet theorists, Mueller found no felonies were committed. All those strange contacts between Trumpists and Russians were real, but Barr says Mueller found no crime.
I wasn’t surprised — but I was a little surprised by how many people were. For two years, we’ve learned all the “quids” of the Trump-Russia relationship (the bizarre June 2016 meeting in Trump tower, followed in short order by hacked DNC emails and documents, the Trump Tower Moscow plans, etc., etc.) and the “quos” (a pro-Putin change in the RNC platform on Ukraine, Mike Flynn’s promises on sanctions, Trump echoing the Putin line on a variety of issues, etc). But there was never the “pro” — a conversation where Team Trump actively hatched a plan for Russia to do the hacking or the social media campaigns that it ultimately did.
The Barr-reported Mueller finding is very much in line with a column I wrote in November 2017 when many of the key facts had already emerged. About 17 months ago, I said “the general vibe is that while the Trumpsters weren’t 100 percent sure what the heck was going on [with Russia’s hacking], they were happy to help in any way they could.” And of Trump’s infamous public plea on Clinton’s emails (“Russia, if you’re listening ... ”)? I wrote: “The candidate’s desperate plea does reflect a certain, perhaps alarming, level of awareness that America’s global rival was dangling criminally obtained ‘dirt’ on his opponent — but Trump also doesn’t sound like a man in full control of a clever criminal enterprise, does he?”
My overall appraisal of the Trump campaign, a year and a half ago, was in the headline: “A confederacy of dunces.” Since speculating about the unseen Mueller report is now a thing, my guess is that Mueller and his team of prosecutors pretty much found the same thing.
Russia didn’t coordinate anything with Trump because it didn’t have to. When The Donald emerged from the swamp of 2016 primaries, Putin decided he’d found his dream candidate to run America: A useful idiot.
Michael Cohen said in his recent House testimony that Trump knows not to give traceable orders but talks in code, like a mob boss. The Russians don’t even do that. They took the measure of the man in June 2016 and then quietly went to work with their hacks and their Facebook mucking around. The Trump campaign didn’t run the Russian op — but they also didn’t run away from it. As far as they were concerned, the hacked emails just “fell off the back of a truck.”
Meanwhile, the chaos and constant discord that swirls around Trump, much like the dirt around Peanuts’ Pigpen, would help Putin’s ultimate goal of a weaker America — even if he lost. And in what still seemed, in the fall of 2016, like the unlikely event of a Trump victory, the Russians would either be working with an effective president inclined to help Putin on sanctions and in the Middle East, or with a horrible, divisive president who’d tear the country apart and create needless chaos.
It was, arguably, the ultimate win-win scenario. But Russia could never just just show up in an America where everything was hunky-dory and hope to have any influence. Its goal was the stir the pot that was already boiling, to put even just a light finger on the scales of a nation that was already split in two by income inequality and a hollowed-out middle class, and racial and other fears stoked by right-wing media and cynical pols. Putin’s interference wasn’t a conspiracy with the Trump campaign — but with 62 million angry American voters.
So I accept Mueller’s finding that there was no coordination that rose to the level of a crime. But I also accept the finding of a lawyer who knows Trump even better, Michael Cohen, who called his ex-boss “a racist ... conman ... cheat.” That’s exactly the president that Russia wanted, and that’s a big problem. But it’s also the president that 62 million of us wanted, and that remains the bigger problem. And the fact that 65 million of us didn’t want this — or the corruption, dishonesty, incompetence, racism and misogyny that came with it — but seem constantly thwarted from doing anything about it is the biggest problem of all.
And yes, as I’ve written as recently as January, too many of the 65 million majority were too willing to think Mueller would single-handedly solve that problem. Now, the all-or-nothing stakes that too many placed in the hands of the taciturn lawman are going to be wielded like a bludgeon against the president’s perceived “enemies list,” and to tamp down things that have nothing to do with the Mueller report — the inhumane cruelty toward children and other living things on the Southern border, the constitution-shredding emergency order on “the wall,” the embrace of white nationalism that allows racists to believe Trump is one of them.
Did you think Trump was a bad, dangerous president before March 24, 2019? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Emboldened by the Barr-fed Total Exoneration Myth, an energized Trump is acting exactly like the autocrat so many feared on the night he was elected. His war against press freedom has already shifted into overdrive, including a demand letter from his campaign to TV producers that could silence his political critics, a move that reeks of the worst authoritarianism.
That’s not all. In less than 48 hours, Trump’s lawyers have moved in court to kill the Affordable Care Act, threatening the health of millions of Americans. A hunger crisis in Puerto Rico is rapidly deteriorating with the president — who responded to the island’s hurricane with apathy and then contempt — not lifting a finger. It was symbolic, if not intentional, that Israel dropped bombs across Gaza at the very moment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting Trump. The world has some bad leaders in 2019, and they are feeling empowered.
None more so than Putin. “Even the brief information specified in the summary has no basis,” Putin’s spokesman told reporters, echoing the GOP spin campaign. "It is difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there.” With Trump already using his belief that Russian interference was “a hoax” as an excuse to ignore ballot security, Putin may see a green light to move on the 2020 election, or the territory he covets. When you pray for America tonight, put in a good word for Belarus, the Baltic states and Ukraine.