Sunday, March 24, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

Rejected as Trump's personal lawyer, William Barr then wrote
a memo and became Attorney General.  A good background
to know in absorbing his letter on the Mueller probe.
Approaching age 69, William Barr may be technically younger than the president but he was clearly in full retirement and not even in consideration for the job of attorney general – until he came out of nowhere in an unsolicited memo  to praise the absolutism of presidential authority and criticize the mere existence of the Robert Mueller probe.

Hardly a surprise, Trump nominated him for the AG job and his defenders made much of his association with Mueller decades ago and his old rep as good lawyer.  Even legal pundits on outlets as varied as FOX and MSNBC made noises that the Barr they knew from 30 years ago would dominate over the Trump fawning of his most recent statement.

Those assurances and three Democratic votes (Doug Jones, Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin) led the senate to easily confirm him in December, with his open promise that he would not let the president’s manner and politics sway him – at least anymore than they already had. 

That action clearly doomed the Mueller report to the trash bin.  We actually don’t have the report just a four page summary by Barr, which in fairness to the president and his critics needs some deeper examination.  I suspect we will never have the full report.

Mueller confirmed the Russians interfered with our election, demonstrated in 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, multiple indictments and 40 FBI agents echoing the firm conclusions of the US intelligence agencies.  The larger question was whether the Trump campaign participated (colluded) with the Russians or if the Russians did it so well and thoroughly on their own.  

Mueller concluded that  he could not tie such efforts to Trump or his campaign despite “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” according to Barr’s four-page summary of the report, reducing any of Mueller’s sentences to footnotes and phrases. 

So what was behind Manafort’s sharing of campaign data with the Russian? What were the frequent offers of help from the Russians about? Why was the Ukraine plank added to the Republican platform at the Trump campaign’s insistence?  Why, most strangely, did so many in the Trump campaign or hangers-on try to hide their Russian connections?  For those questions, we have no answer. 

Conversely, Mueller could not prove to his own satisfaction under a limited law the president’s criminal role in obstruction of justice, which is doubly hard to prove without the underlying criminality of collusion.  Was the president worried that James Comey and then Mueller could find something there anyway? (He could not know how deep they were looking or who else was talking.)   Was he just being his typical run at the mouth self?  Mueller left that decision to others – maybe thinking of Congress? 

Unless the full report is released or Mueller is free to testify, there are many more key questions we can’t answer.  For instance, Mueller never questioned Trump in person.  Was that because of DOJ policy?  Or did Trump threaten to take the Fifth Amendment if questioned?

Did Mueller intend his refusal to exonerate the president as a way of opening the door for Congress to decide though the impeachment process? My children may be in their sixties decades from now in order to learn what Mueller intended.  That’s when historians scrape the barnacles off the record and if people still care enough to resurrect the truth.  This is my negative judgment about how much Congress will uncover in the next few months.

The House wants Barr and even Mueller to testify. The Democrats want to see the underlying documentation. But some of that may never happen or not be very satisfying. There are Department of Justice rules that need to be worked around.  Such things as grand jury testimony and conversations among prosecutors.  “I decline to answer” may be the most common response. The House will try but the process will be slow and exhausting. The difficulty – the maddening frustration -- may spur Trump’s opponents to turn out to vote heavier against him in 2020. Or they may slink away at how little we know.

Given the rules that encourage obfuscation, given the 5-minute question limitations of House hearings, given  the Republicans still in charge of the Senate, and  given Nancy Pelosi’s wise instructions to not  give Trump  the satisfaction of a vindictive enemy, impeachment seems off the table. Whatever Mueller intended.

That was written on the wall last December when Barr supporters said he would act as an old-fashioned traditionalist rather than a Trump partisan.  He didn’t.  Mueller may have well wanted Congress to decide on such issues as obstruction of justice, but Barr stepped in and decided on his own that no such inquiry was warranted. This, frankly, is the most obvious misstep – Barr concluding over a weekend something that Mueller was gathering reams of evidence on for two years!

The House may complain.  It may try to have more of the report released now rather than decades from now for historians.  The main comfort for Trump’s opponents is how  many other legal avenues there are that Mueller was only indirectly involved in – the behavior of the Trump foundation, revelations in his tax returns, the emoluments lawsuits.  The real punishment of Trump remains in the hands of the voters.

What does all this prove? I can only echo an unlikely Democratic candidate for president, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg: "The country should never have let someone like Trump even get within cheating distance of the White House."

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


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