Thursday, April 4, 2019

Got Paranoia? Barr's Narratology

Would you buy a used funeral from this man? Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images via Time.

I should be writing an "I told you so" post on the revelation showing up in The New York Times last night that Mueller's staffers are starting to complain that Barr's letter made Trump look less implicated than he actually is:
WASHINGTON — Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations....
The special counsel’s investigators had already written multiple summaries of the report, and some team members believe that Mr. Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page letter he wrote on March 24 laying out their main conclusions, according to government officials familiar with the investigation.
But it strikes me as coming a little late. Barr has already succeeded in shaping the discourse in a way that may end up being really hard to remedy. I'm talking about that that weirdly incommensurate treatment of the two chosen aspects of the criminal investigation:

  • the conspiracy-and-coordination case against some large but unspecified collection of potential defendants of which Mueller is quoted as saying the investigation hadn't "established" it, flattened by Barr to hadn't "found", and inverted by the press all over the place to the contention that Mueller had found the absence of a conspiracy, or that there was "no evidence" of it, which is clearly false on its face, given that a good bit of evidence (like Papadopoulos's story of the initial dangle, Junior's correspondence over the Veselnitskaya meeting, Flynn's working with Russian officials over sanctions policy, the poorly redacted story of Manafort sending privileged data to where Russian intelligence could get it, Stone's over his coordination with WikiLeaks, Trump's own occasional closetings with Russians away from American eyes, and the fact that everybody told false stories about these matters that they later had to withdraw) is public, and much more can easily be inferred; and
  • the obstruction of justice charge specifically against Trump on which Mueller didn't draw a conclusion at all, noting "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him", leaving Attorney General Barr and deputy Rosenstein to do it themselves, in Barr's opinion (he sounds kind of grumpy about it, like "I always get stuck with these jobs"), with the conclusion that "evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense."
Obscuring the fact that Mueller actually understood both cases exactly the same way: the evidence in both cases wasn't adequate to establish the commission of crimes and prosecute a case, if he was going to, which according to long-standing Justice Department policy he wasn't, because in the case of a sitting president that is the job of Congress, which applies different standards in any case. Barr's letter has succeeded in turning them into two different things, the conspiracy case Mueller couldn't "find", and the obstruction case he couldn't "decide".

As if there weren't any evidence at all for the former, while of course we saw the evidence of Trump committing the latter on TV, though, not being lawyers, we can't say whether he was doing it on purpose (Trump's mens is always rea even when he doesn't have any special evil plans), and the lawyers apparently can't say either.

The phony distinction between the two is now a standard way of looking at it, as you see from this morning's coverage in Washington Post:
Absent [a conclusion from Mueller], Barr told lawmakers that he concluded the evidence was not sufficient to prove that the president obstructed justice.
But members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.
“It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.
Without a word on how the team members viewed the conspiracy question, as if it weren't even interesting. Did reporters not even ask? Or did they get more generalized responses (Times couldn't furnish any comments directly on the investigation at all) and did the editorial process turn that into comments on the obstruction case because everybody now knows, thanks to the Barr letter, that that's the only game there is?

Because if we take this reporting at face value, and there is no conspiracy case worth talking about, why was the evidence of obstruction "alarming and significant" and "much more acute"? What was alarming about it? If it was just Trump being Trump, pushing Yates and Comey and Sessions and Rosenstein and McCabe and the rest around because he disliked their tone and telling lies because of his personality disorder, how is that "acute"?

There's also Barr's assertion that his redaction activity involves not just protecting national security and grand jury secrecy but also "the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties". If we're being primed to think there is no conspiracy case, but the obstruction case is obvious since we watched the obstruction on TV, perhaps that's going to lull us into not recognizing the significance of those redactions. Maybe some of those third parties have names like Carter Page, Tom Barrack, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump, Jr. Absence of information on them might make the conspiracy case look weaker than it is (there aren't any peripheral parties in the obstruction case as Barr has cast it, since it's all about Trump) and we won't notice it's missing.

If Barr is really working as the Roy Cohn Trump always said he wanted as attorney general, he may already have done a big part of his job; as the Times report said,
Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.
Indeed. (Also see Aaron Blake at Wapo's aptly named "The Fix". Aptly in a different way, I should say, than when it was Chris Cillizza's bailiwick and he was doing the fixing.)

No comments:

Post a Comment