The attorney general of the United States is supposed to serve the interests of the American people, not the president. But in his briefing on the Mueller report, William Barr sounded like Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. The president could hardly have been better served if he had written Barr’s statement himself.
Notable in the statement was a significant departure from the carefully parsed conclusion in his March 24 letter summarizing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller. Then, Barr quoted the report: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Thursday, Barr went further, saying “There was no evidence of Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with the Russian government’s hacking.”
It’s one thing to say the investigation didn’t confirm that something occurred, as Barr’s letter said, and another to say there is “no evidence” that it occurred. The phrase “no evidence” was conspicuously absent from the March 24 letter. If Mueller indeed found “no evidence” of collaboration, why didn’t Barr say so then? Today, he appeared to be overstating something he was previously careful not to overstate.
Barr also went to great lengths to defend the president’s furious fulminations against Mueller and his obvious attempts to influence testimony by those connected with him and his campaign. Though “the president was frustrated and angry” at the investigation, Barr averred, in the end he “fully cooperated” with the probe.
Well, cooperation is in the eye of the beholder. Trump refused to submit to an interview with Mueller. Most investigative targets resent being investigated. And why does Barr praise him for doing what any other citizen would be legally obligated to do? The obvious answer: because he is trying to serve the president’s needs and interests.
One thing we’ve learned in the past two years is how hard it is to take a job in this administration without behaving like a Trump lackey. Thursday, Barr had a chance to demonstrate rigorous impartiality and independence. Instead, he ensured that like so many others, he will leave his office with his reputation seriously damaged.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.