Still no real appetite to impeach Donald Trump
Indications that Barr misrepresented Mueller’s findings may not be sufficient
US attorney general William Barr with an aide during testimony before the Senate judiciary committee in Washington. Photograph: New York Times
As any good public relations executive knows, getting out early with a story is essential to shaping the news agenda.
Luckily for Donald Trump – himself a master of media manipulation – this is precisely what happened when the Mueller report was finally completed last month. After 22 months of investigation special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his findings to attorney general William Barr on Friday, March 22nd. By the end of that weekend Barr, together with his deputy Rod Rosenstein, had sent a four-page summary of the document to Congress.
The top-line findings were clear – the special counsel had found no evidence of collusion between Trump’s circle and Russia. In addition, the report did not conclude the president committed a crime, though it did not exonerate him on the issue of obstruction of justice.
Republicans rejoiced and Trump was triumphant. “A complete and total exoneration,” was how the US president described the outcome, denouncing the investigation as an “illegal takedown that failed”.
The full version of Mueller’s report underlined what many suspected – that the special counsel’s findings were actually more damning of the president than Barr’s summary had suggested
For almost four weeks it seemed the dust had settled. Trump and his supporters felt vindicated, and pledging to investigate why the inquiry was initiated in the first place. Despite lingering unease among Democrats that the full report had still not been released, as well as Mueller’s statement in the report that he had not exonerated the president, most Democrats shied away from talk of impeachment even as they vowed to continue with congressional investigations into Trump’s behaviour.
But things changed on April 18th when Barr released a redacted version of the full report. The full version of Mueller’s report underlined what many suspected – that the special counsel’s findings were actually more damning of the president than Barr’s summary had suggested. In particular, the report contained claims that Trump had instructed White House counsel Don McGahn during the summer of 2017 to remove Mueller – a sure sign of obstruction of justice to many. At least one presidential candidate – Elizabeth Warren – called for impeachment proceedings to begin against the president.
Growing unease that the Mueller report had been misrepresented by Barr exploded into the open this week when Barr appeared before the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday. During a fiery all-day hearing the attorney general, who was appointed by Trump in January to head the justice department after he fired Jeff Sessions, faced fierce questioning by Democrats over his handling of the report. The stage had been set for a showdown the previous evening, when a letter written by Mueller to the attorney general in the days following the publication of his summary emerged into the public arena.
In the letter – one of two sent by Mueller to Barr in the days after he submitted his report – the special counsel expressed concern that the four-page summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of his findings, and caused “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation”.
The publication of the letter and Barr’s testimony on Wednesday reveals that rather than a fait accompli, the Mueller report has in fact been the source of huge friction between the special counsel and the department of justice over the past month – a development all the more extraordinary given the fact that Mueller and Barr previously worked together and were friendly.
Where Democrats go from here is unclear. Several senior members of the party have called for Barr to resign, believing the role of attorney general has been politicised
During hours of testimony, Barr appeared on the back foot as he defended his finding that the president did not obstruct justice, expounding on his expansive interpretation of presidential power, and arguing that he had authority over the special counsel. “[Mueller’s] work concluded when he submitted the report to the attorney general. At that point, it was my baby,” he said. He then refused to appear before the House judiciary committee the following day due to a dispute about the format of the hearing.
Trump critics had already been sceptical of Barr, who previously served as attorney general under George HW Bush. Significantly he sent an unsolicited memo to the justice department last year arguing that Mueller was overstepping his mandate by examining the question of obstruction of justice. A few months later he was chosen by Trump to lead the department and take over responsibility for the Mueller investigation.
Where Democrats go from here is unclear. Several senior members of the party have called for Barr to resign, believing the role of attorney general has been politicised.
“He continues to play the role of defence attorney to the president, not of attorney general of the United States,” said Democratic senator Pat Leahy.
Nancy Pelosi issued her strongest rebuke yet of Barr on Thursday, accusing the attorney general of committing a crime. “How sad it is for us to see the top law enforcement officer in our country misrepresenting, withholding, the truth from the Congress of the United States,” she said.
“He lied to Congress, and if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law; not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general.”
But many remain wary of initiating impeachment proceedings.
The prospect of an unedifying and ultimately unsuccessful impeachment process is not favoured by most Democrats and particularly Pelosi despite her tough talk this week. With Republicans controlling the Senate, any impeachment vote would likely fail given Trump’s strong support in the upper chamber. There are also fears that initiating impeachment could paradoxically benefit Trump, given that he is a president who thrives on conflict.
Instead, Democrats are more likely to continue their various investigations and concentrate on winning back control of the White House in 2020 – the best way, they believe, to challenge the authority of Trump.
Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent