President Donald Trump is winning his war against Robert Mueller. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has transformed the post-Mueller reckoning into a stalemate.
Five months ago, Trump nominated Barr to succeed his administration’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a foremost Trump loyalist who nonetheless infuriated Trump by recusing himself from any investigation related to interference in the 2016 election, thereby allowing his subordinate, Rod Rosenstein, to appoint Mueller as special counsel. Trump selected Sessions’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, a vocal critic of Mueller’s investigation, to serve as the acting attorney general in the interim between Sessions’s resignation and Barr’s confirmation. Barr wasn’t as explicitly opposed to the special counsel’s investigation. He released Mueller’s report (with many redactions) to the public within a month of the special counsel’s submission and agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee following criticism of his handling of the report. On Wednesday, Barr sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and attempted to rationalize Trump’s frustrations with Mueller’s investigation while also defending his handling of Mueller’s findings—much as Barr defended Trump in a press conference one day before he released Mueller’s report to the public. “Two years of his administration have now been dominated by allegations that have proven false,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “To listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think the Mueller report had found the opposite.”
Trump has extracted unwavering loyalty from his three attorneys general, Sessions, Whitaker, and Barr, who trump the president’s nemesis Mueller in the political hierarchy. During the 22 months that the special counsel conducted its investigation, Trump’s critics assumed Mueller would be the ultimate authority in determining Trump’s political fate. Mueller would be the savior. But Mueller has largely withdrawn from his own aftermath, his intentions obscured by Barr’s remarks and by his reluctance to speak publicly about his findings. Mueller wrote a letter to Barr shortly after the report’s release to express his concerns about Barr’s characterizations of the special counsel’s conclusions, citing “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation”; Mueller has yet to elaborate on those concerns in any setting, whether before the Senate Judiciary Committee or on 60 Minutes. So Barr displaces Mueller in the political imagination. Barr mitigated the fallout from the special counsel’s report by obscuring its findings and trivializing Mueller personally. In his testimony Wednesday, Barr described Mueller’s correspondence as “a bit snitty.” Barr recalled asking, “Bob, what’s with the letter? Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?”
Barr’s predictable interference underscores the original challenge facing the president’s critics. Who do you call once Trump’s appointees reveal themselves as unwaveringly loyal to the president under suspicion? What higher legal authority do congressional Democrats intend to persuade? Trump’s critics placed massive faith in Mueller’s capacity to overcome Trump’s influence over the Justice Department, anticipating a moment when the DOJ and congressional Republicans would break with the president once and for all. They were, unsurprisingly, wrong.
Congress remains split between two unproductive factions: Republicans, who oppose impeachment on any grounds, regardless of the evidence, and Democrats, who largely resist calls for impeachment, too, if only for fear of backlash and failure. For now, Democratic leaders and presidential candidates (save for Senator Bernie Sanders) are calling on Barr to resign. California Senator Kamala Harris, who grilled the attorney general during Wednesday’s hearing, described Barr’s testimony as “unacceptable.” “He needs to go,” Harris said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Barr lied to Congress. “That’s a crime,” Pelosi said. Barr declined to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, objecting to House Democrats’ intention to interview him through attorneys on staff. Pelosi can only hint toward punishing Barr while Congress struggles, for more than two years now, to punish Trump: “There’s a process involved here,” Pelosi said. It remains unclear what the process might indeed be, how it might work, and whether the Democrats might assert themselves with any real rigor.
Of course, there’s impeachment—the eminently familiar option which Democrats have strained to avoid. Pelosi and her senior colleagues worry about impeachment proceedings distracting from the general election in 2020 and perhaps proving counterproductive to her party’s goal of getting Trump out of office. The historian John A. Farrell, who has written a biography of Richard Nixon, sees Pelosi following the example her predecessor Tip O’Neill set in the early phases of Watergate. “Southern Democrats, conservative Democrats, were listening to their base,” Farrell told The New Yorker, “and their base was telling them that they didn’t believe in this and it sounded like Washington hijinks that wasn’t affecting their lives.” The reporters covering the early town halls say the primary voters don’t care about Mueller. But left-wing activists have demanded Trump’s impeachment since before the president was sworn into office, and so a reporter might have to discern between disinterest and disillusionment. It’s difficult to imagine the calls for Trump’s impeachment growing louder than they’ve been since Mueller’s investigation began.
Mueller once promised resolution. His 448-page pronouncement has given way to ambivalence, relativism, and apathy among Trump’s supporters and Trump’s opponents alike. National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing for Politico to defend Barr, isolated the rare bipartisan truth: “Democrats still want someone else to do their work for them.” There’s only so much Mueller could’ve done. There’s so much more Congress could do. There’s only so many federal crimes and institutional abuses a presidential election might solve.