Friday, April 19, 2019

Mueller Report Counterspin: We Still Don't Know Why Trump Denied Russian Interference

by Michael C. Dorf

Attorney General Barr, President Trump, and their FoxNews amen chorus spent several weeks spinning what turns out to be a substantially fictional version of even the redacted Mueller Report. Now the rest of us weigh in. Here I'll offer both a substantive and prescriptive take for everyone who regards Trump's presidency as a disaster.

My bottom line is this: The Report could but won't be used as the basis for impeachment. Meanwhile, it leaves two fundamental questions unanswered. First, why, both during and after the campaign, did Trump repeatedly deny Russian efforts to interfere with the election, when he must have been well aware of them? Second, if they had nothing to hide, why did so many of Trump's close associates lie to Mueller's team and why did Trump--whether or not he committed acts that are chargeable as obstruction under DOJ policy--repeatedly try to undercut the investigation?

I don't have definitive answers to those questions. I do have an important takeaway, however: even the most innocent explanations should be EXTREMELY damaging to Trump.

Before coming to the key points, I want to address two issues that could be distractions.

(1) There is a natural tendency to focus on titillating or lurid details. When the Starr Report was released, its readers were understandably fascinated/appalled by the following passage: "At one point, the President inserted a cigar into Ms. Lewinsky's vagina, then put the cigar in his mouth and said: 'It tastes good.' "

But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. That particular detail garnered disproportionate attention relative to other less sexual details that were much more relevant to whether Clinton had committed perjury or obstruction of justice.

So far, it appears that the juiciest detail in the Mueller Report is that when Trump learned of Mueller's appointment as special counsel, he “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’ ”

The use of the F-Bomb will no doubt titillate, but this particular passage should be a nothingburger. Reading down a few lines, we see Trump saying the following: “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Thus, Trump's statement that his presidency was over and he was fucked was not an admission of guilt. Rather, it was a prediction about the impact of the investigation itself, regardless of its ultimate findings. Ignore the F-Bomb.

(2) Since AG Barr released his sub-four-page summary of the Report and especially in response to Barr's completely unnecessary spinathon of a press conference two hours before the Report's release, prominent Democrats have accused Barr of partisan hackery. Side-by-side analysis of Barr's spin and the actual Report largely vindicates that accusation, especially with respect to obstruction of justice.

Nonetheless, Trump critics mostly should not focus on Barr, who is a distraction from Trump. Every conversation about whether Barr accurately summarized the Report is a conversation that could have been about the content of the Report.

* * * 

So much for the distractions. Let's move on to the main event.

One could read the Mueller Report and conclude that Trump's repeated mendacity and attempted, though unsuccessful, obstruction of justice warrant impeachment. I assume, however, that for political reasons, the Democratic leadership will not pursue impeachment. There will, however, at least be congressional efforts at further investigation. Based on the Report, what, exactly, should be investigated?

That brings me to what I called above the two big unanswered questions the Report raised. The Report details extensive and repeated efforts by Russian agents to support and reach out to the Trump campaign. It reports numerous instances of Trump campaign officials--including Donald Jr.--being intrigued by offers of cooperation, but it ultimately concludes:
Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected that it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government . . . . (emphasis added).
So why did Trump, both during and after the campaign deny that Russia assisted his campaign?

We can pretty quickly dispose of one answer: It was not because the Russian efforts were known by others in the campaign but not Trump himself. For example, on pages 53 and 54 of Volume 1 of the Report, we read that both Paul Manafort and Rick Gates talked with Trump about the timing of WikiLeaks releases. Trump actually tells Gates what's coming. Trump's dictation of the bogus adoption-related cover story for the infamous Trump Tower meeting and the very large number of other contacts by people very close to Trump--including Donald Jr.--make it simply wildly implausible to think that Trump was unaware that the Russians were actively trying to elect him president. And that's not to mention "If you're listening, Russia . . . ."

So why did Trump repeatedly deny that there was proof of Russian interference when he knew otherwise?

Vanity is a partial answer, but it mostly only explains some of Trump's post-election conduct. Yes, after Trump was elected, he wanted to minimize the extent of Russian interference, because he thought that if the Russians were given any credit, that would undermine the impressiveness of his "historic" victory. But before the election--when Trump viewed the campaign as a giant informercial that would be useful to his business even in the likely event that he lost--there was less to be gained from denying Russian interference.

So why did Trump repeatedly deny that there was Russian interference? I can think of four possibilities, none of which shows Trump in a remotely positive light:

1) Trump participated in or knew of participation by members of his campaign (including Donald Jr.) in an illegal conspiracy with Russian agents. Just because Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a conspiracy to bring a case that he thought he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that there wasn't such a conspiracy. This possibility would make the most sense of the various Trump underlings who lied to Mueller's team.

2) Trump was either trying to curry favor with Putin for personal gain (such as the Trump Tower Moscow deal) or afraid that Putin would release damaging information about Trump (whether in the form of the "pee tape" or, more likely, financial shenanigans by Trump with the aid of Russian money).

3) Trump simply has a natural affinity for strongman dictators. He sensed in Putin a kindred spirit and thus wanted to impress Putin.

4) Trump's ostensible policy rationale -- seeking better relations with Russia -- motivated him not to want to antagonize Putin by calling Putin out for his election interference. This is the most innocent of the possible explanations, but if true, it shows Trump to be incredibly naive. It's also wildly inconsistent with Trump's portrayal of himself as a tough negotiator or general tough-guy.

In a well functioning democracy, leaders of the opposition party would have a chance to put the question to the president or at least his spokesperson why Trump for so long falsely claimed there was no Russian interference when he obviously knew better, and the president or his spokesperson would have to give an answer or face consequences. However, the US is not currently a well functioning democracy, as you can probably infer from the fact that Donald Trump, a mendacious narcissistic bigot who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, is president.

Accordingly, instead of digging into the question why Trump for so long and to this day gives Russia a pass, we can expect the talking heads to intone things like this: "Democrats say the Attorney General mischaracterized the Mueller Report, while Republicans say the Report exonerates the president and his campaign. Now a story about your health. Could French Fries be good for you? One Louisiana chef with no relevant knowledge or expertise thinks so."


Shag from Brookline said...

During AG Barr's presser, the late Eliot Richardson came to mind. He had been elected and served as MA Attorney General before joining the Nixon Administration. Richardson was well respected in MA by liberals/progressives, a noble public servant. So he resigned as Nixon's AG rather than carry out Nixon's orders in Nixon's efforts to dam Watergate. An honorable action by an honorable man. Trump's AG Billy Barr is no Eliot Richardson; rather, Barr is a dead man walking . A. G. Billy Barr's spinning of the Mueller Report may backfire and bars may be faced by Trump in the future. Deputy Rod Rosenstein's future may be memorialized as depicted standing behind Barr while Barr was spinning.

What I have learned from reporting on the Mueller Report, including by Late Nite comics, is that the ghost of Roy Cohn, Esquire, has continued to guide Trump since Cohn's demise. Trump has no shame. Trump will "take care" of his own brand, his business, not the Article II requirement of the president.

Shag from Brookline said...

I just saw Mark Fiore's cartoon "Barring the Mueller Report" employing oral redaction by A. G. Barr. The Report, despite Garr's spinning, is really baring of Trump.

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm not naturally a conspiracy theorist as I am, like Will Rogers, not a member of an organized political party, but merely a Democrat. But perhaps A. G. Barr might be like a Manchurian Candidate. Barr seemed to have solid Republican and conservative chops, having served as A. G. under George H. W. Bush. I have no idea of where he stood during the 2016 GOP "Sweet Sixteen" campaign, although I suspect he might have supported Jeb Bush at some point out of loyalty. But I do not recall anything about Barr's role in the GOP nomination process or during the campaign between Trump and Clinton. I don't recall him being identified as a "NeverTrumper" or a Trump supporter. After Trump won and Chris Christie served to address who might serve in the Trump Administration, perhaps Barr came up in discussions. But Trump fired Christie and it's not clear if the records of his activities have been retained. Jeff Sessions, who was active in Trump's campaign early on was nominated and appointed A. G. After Sessions was fired/resigned, word got out about Barr's 19 page unsolicited memo to the White House on problems with the Mueller investigation. In addition, Barr had an OpEd published (I think in the WaPO) critical of the Mueller investigation. This led to Barr's nomination to replace Sessions' "Acting" replacement, with confirmation by the GOP controlled Senate.

Might Barr have been a plant of the "NeverTrumpers"? Consider Barr's misleading 3+ page "summary" of the Mueller Report and his subsequent explanation that it was not intended as a summary. Consider Barr's presser just prior to the release of a heavily redacted copy of the Report. Trump was initially happy with both Barr's 3+ page "summary" and praised Mueller, which was sharply in contrast with Trump's many statements denigrating Mueller and his staff. Consider that the released redacted Mueller Report clearly demonstrates Barr's spinning from the gitt-go of the filing of the Report.

Now we know that Trump has no shame. But perhaps "NeverTrumpers" employed Barr as their troll before things got too close to the 2020 campaign so that perhaps the Republicans could find a better Republican candidate, say Jeb Bush. So perhaps Barbara Bush is getting revenge via "NeverTrumpers." Is this why Rod Rosenstein may have stayed on? Perhaps Trump will blame Barr for his 3+ page summary that provided comfort to Trump and his allies. Now Trump is furious with the Mueller Report even though it is redacted.

So, Is Barr a sort of Manchurian Candidate serving the "NeverTrumpers"? Ask Max Boot.

Joe said...

should be EXTREMELY damaging to Trump

Reading the O'Connor bio, we are reminded of the old Marshall line that the only thing he "had" to do is be black (or a "Negro" as he would have phrased it much of his life) and die. The same applies here. The Republicans, e.g., SHOULD slither off and die for supporting Trump (and as of now, supporting his re-election), but ...

However, the US is not currently a well functioning democracy, as you can probably infer from the fact that Donald Trump, a mendacious narcissistic bigot who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, is president.

The prediction impeachment will not be used is a safe bet though I agree with my congresswoman (AOC) that this is the right way to go:

So, we are stuck with an imperfect approach to address the problem. Life is imperfection though this depressingly makes me think the reason we have an impeachment clause is to remove the occasional judge. [This is a bit too pessimistic.] But, at a certain basic level I'm going to be depressed. This includes the good odds of Republican Senate though the party endorses about SIX MORE YEARS of Trump.

As Prof. Segall has repeated repeatedly, Barr was clearly horrible from his Iran Contra days alone. We are haunted by people who ideally would have been blocked from future service in positions of federal "trust" per the impeachment process ("disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States").

Instead, to paraphrase Pilate given this is Easter season, we will have people ask cynically "what is the truth" and decide Trump is not guilty of nothing but some partisan political dispute. Reasonable minds disagree and all that & we need to pick some person like Joe Biden who says Pence and Jeb! are charming guys.

Asher said...

I think you're missing a pretty obvious explanation. Any presidential candidate would want to deny that he was Putin's preferred candidate, and would especially want to deny that Putin preferred him so much that his agents were hacking into his opponent's campaign. I am sure that Bernie Sanders would also like to deny that he was Russia's preferred candidate in the primary or that Russia interfered in the primary (and certainly would have denied it at the time), though this report documents that he was their preferred candidate and that Russia tried to help him in the primary. That isn't just an ipse dixit on my part; he has, in fact, denied that Russia tried to help him, even after Mueller documented Russia's efforts on his behalf in indictments, and even blamed Clinton's campaign for not doing more to not get hacked. I think this is just what any politician in their position would do. Trump's denials were more categorical, but that doesn't suggest any untoward motive; it's just indicative of his greater dishonesty. Splitting hairs as Sanders has done or as some Republicans have done and saying that Russia only opposed Hillary and didn't support Trump or Sanders is much less politically effective than simply denying that Russia is intervening against your opponent.

Shag from Brookline said...

Rather than an "ipse dixit" Asher is "whistling dixie" with this addition to his resume. Recall Trump as president at Helsinki with Putin.

Shag from Brookline said...

Readers of this post by Mike are urged to read the April 19, 2019 NYTimes editorial:

"The Mueller Report and the Danger Facing American Democracy
A perceived victory for Russian interference poses a serious risk for the United States."

to better understand and appreciate what Mike refers to as the "main event" of the Mueller Report.

Joe said...

Don't eat too much vegan chocolate or charoset on matzohs now.

Happy holidays.

Shag from Brookline said...

The convergence of Western Easter with Passover and Orthodox Easter to follow Passover, hopefully Jerusalem will be peaceful as the Koran praises Jesus, Hebrew born, as a prophet. As a long lapsed Christian and an Agnostic leaning towards Atheism, I'd like some real peace in the Levant. These religions share the same God. I hope the situation in Northern Ireland is calm. I stopped watching local news because of violence. The national news is now as bad. I've still got hope. Tomorrow I'll be thinking of my time as a child with my parents going to church on Easter Sunday armed with hard-boiled dyed eggs ready to crack and acquire those of my losing peers. Last Sunday was Palm Sunday and I recalled receiving blessed palm leaves that would be used to gently touch relatives and make crosses with to place on our jackets or shirts. I miss the peace of these holidays. But why do religions have to be so competitive at times?

Happy holidays to all, including the secular.