How bad is it?

Benjamin Wittes urged us to give Barr the benefit of the doubt until he’d had time to act; he now feels burned.

Where Barr has utterly failed, by contrast*, is in providing “honest leadership that insulates [the department] from the predations of the president.” I confess I am surprised by this. I have never known Barr well, but I thought better of him than that.

*By contrast with what he did with the report, which Wittes thinks was not too bad.

The core of the problem is not that Barr moved, as many people worried he would, to suppress the report; it is what he has said about it. I have spent a great deal of time with the Mueller report, about which Barr’s public statements are simply indefensible. The mischaracterizations began in his first letter. They got worse during his press conference the morning he released the document. And they grew worse still yesterday in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Barr did not lie in any of these statements. He did not, as some people insist, commit perjury. I haven’t found a sentence he has written or said that cannot be defended as truthful on its own terms, if only in some literal sense. But it is possible to mislead without lying. One can be dishonest before Congress without perjury. And one can convey sweeping untruths without substantial factual misstatement. This is what Barr has been doing since that first letter. And it is utterly beneath the United States Department of Justice.

What he’s been doing, Wittes says, is systematically translating Mueller’s “we didn’t find enough evidence to charge/convict” to “they found that nothing happened.”

In other words, Barr is not merely translating the absence of sufficient evidence for charges into a crime’s not taking place; he is translating the crime’s not taking place into an absence of misconduct in a more colloquial sense. He is also using the president’s specific talking point in doing so. This pair of mischaracterizations has the effect of transforming Trump into an innocent man falsely accused.

Barr amplifies this transformation with his third layer of misrepresentation: his adoption of Trump’s “spying” narrative, which states that there was something improper about the FBI’s scrutiny of campaign figures who had bizarre contacts with Russian-government officials or intermediaries. Barr has not specified precisely what he believes here, but yesterday’s Senate hearing was the second congressional hearing at which he implied darkly that the FBI leadership under James Comey had engaged in some kind of improper surveillance of the Trump campaign.

There’s a lot more, all of it valuable. Wittes doesn’t know if Barr knows he’s bullshitting us or if he actually believes that Trump is a great president maligned by sinister opponents.

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