Barr’s Deflections Point to a Larger Failure

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Slowly, carefully, relentlessly, Attorney General William Barr parried questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It amounted to a bravura defense of his boss — and an unintended indictment of American politics.

Barr was testifying about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Confronted with a litany of corrupt acts by President Donald Trump and his associates, Barr dissembled, deflected, and dwelled on legalisms, all to muddle what the probe had really turned up.

It was of a piece with Barr’s behavior throughout the investigation. His public summaries of Mueller’s report — in a memo and a subsequent press conference — could most charitably be described as “not technically false.” He quoted misleading sentence fragments, took words out of context, obfuscated the legal issues at hand, and mischaracterized the investigation’s key conclusions. In doing so, he created the impression that the president had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Mueller said no such thing. In reality, he found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s interference; that the president had made more than a dozen attempts to obstruct the probe; that he avoided more serious criminality largely because no one followed his orders; and that he had repeatedly abused his power to protect himself and his friends. Barr’s misdirection served only to blur these conclusions and protect his boss. It was canny politics and lamentable public service.

It was also emblematic of a larger failure.

Following Trump’s election, it wasn’t clear that any public institution had the credibility to establish the truth about Russia’s attack. A probe by the House Intelligence Committee imploded in a blaze of partisanship. A Senate inquiry has ambled on for two years, to little result. Into this void, kooks and charlatans across the political spectrum have offered their own feverish theories about “what really happened” — and a lot of otherwise reasonable people have listened to them.

A better approach would have been to appoint an independent panel on the model of the 9/11 Commission, one that could have held open hearings, questioned witnesses, assessed classified information, and published a report establishing the facts.

Instead, this essential task fell — more or less by default — to the special counsel. It was an awkward fit. Mueller’s official assignment was limited: to investigate any crimes that may have been committed in connection with Russia’s interference. But plainly the public was expecting something more: an airing of the evidence, a resolution of the many mysteries surrounding the case, a considered judgment on the actions of the president and his associates, criminal and otherwise.

Despite his limited remit, Mueller was largely able to answer that call. His report was transparent, fair-minded, thorough, and scrupulously evidence-based. Taken on its own, it could have established a baseline set of facts, put the conspiracies to rest, and allowed Congress to take action as needed. It might have enabled the country to move on from a scandal that has at times threatened to overwhelm civic life entirely.

Instead, the whole probe — nearly two years of meticulous investigation, occupying 19 federal prosecutors and some 40 FBI agents — has now been reduced to yet another gross political circus, with everyone entitled to their own versions of reality. As Barr sparred with his Democratic interlocutors, Republican senators spent Wednesday’s hearing rehearsing their greatest hits: the Steele dossier, Fusion GPS, and (lest anyone forget) Hillary Clinton’s emails.

It will get worse. Expect months of subpoena fights, court battles, tendentious hearings, simmering paranoia, scaremongering, recrimination — the whole partisan maelstrom will continue. An honest and sober evaluation of the special counsel’s report wouldn’t have settled things, but it would have helped. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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