No sooner had Attorney General William Barr issued his summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation than Washington’s sharply divided political machinery went into overdrive, producing competing storylines about the long-awaited report.
Such strategies often pass for official business in the nation’s capital, as politicians and consultants across the spectrum attempt to gain an early advantage swaying public opinion about the still-unknown contents of the Mueller probe.
In a four-page synopsis of the much longer report, Barr told congressional leaders the special counsel found no evidence that President Donald Trump or his associates had worked with Russians to influence the 2016 election. Only the attorney general and a tiny handful of people working with him inside the Justice Department have actually seen the full Mueller report. Much more about it remains unknown than known.
But ignorance of what’s in the report hasn’t hampered a great many White House officials, federal lawmakers, and Democratic presidential candidates from talking about Barr’s top-line summary in a way they hope will bolster their respective political perspectives with the public.
Practically speaking, Barr’s letter offered the White House a green light to perpetuate its well-established mantra — “no collusion, no obstruction” — as it bucks up supportive Republicans and refutes dismissive Democrats about the Trump team’s involvement with Russian efforts to meddle in the election.
In a series of early morning tweets, Trump on Monday enthusiastically embraced Barr’s document as vindication of the narrative he’d been spinning from the beginning.
“No matter your ideologies or your loyalties, this is a good day for America. No American conspired to cooperate with Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, according to Robert Mueller, and that is good.” @BretBaier @FoxNews
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2019
Similarly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) gloated over what he considered the removal of a “cloud” that had been hanging over the White House.
I have just received topline findings from Attorney General Barr.
Good day for the rule of law.
Great day for President Trump and his team.
No collusion and no obstruction.
The cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed by this report.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) March 24, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in a statement shortly after the release of the Barr letter, argued that it “confirm[s] the president’s account that there was no effort by his campaign to conspire or coordinate with Russia….”
McConnell said, however, that he remains concerned about “Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy [which are] dangerous and disturbing, and I welcome the special counsel’s contributions to our efforts to understand better Russia’s activities in this regard.”
Democrats, meanwhile, found themselves in the difficult and uncomfortable position of responding to a report without full knowledge of its contents and unsteady in their approach to counter it.
Clearly, they had expected — or hoped — that Mueller’s report would provide a political smoking gun linking the White House to efforts by Russian government officials to meddle in the election that sent Trump to the White House.
Democratic leaders are left to call for the public release of the full report before allowing the president an escape hatch from alleged corruption claims.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was the first federal lawmaker to post excerpts from the Barr letter. He also demanded that Congress have the final say about whether the president committed any crimes related to Russian involvement in the election.
There must be full transparency in what Special Counsel Mueller uncovered to not exonerate the President from wrongdoing. DOJ owes the public more than just a brief synopsis and decision not to go any further in their work.
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) March 24, 2019
For now, while the American public remains in the dark, more and more politicians will ignorantly debate the unknown, hoping gain an advantage with voters in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
Preparing myself for at least a week of conservatives crowing and liberals lamenting. #MuellerReport
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) March 24, 2019
Almost immediately after word came late Friday that Mueller had wrapped up his investigation, various candidates in this year’s field of Democratic presidential contenders, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, pounced on the news and called for the release of the full report. By Sunday, with the release of the Barr letter, nearly all of the candidates had issued a statement expressing that sentiment.
“A politically appointed Attorney General shouldn’t decide how much of the Special Counsel report Congress can read,” former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — another 2020 hopeful — tweeted minutes after the letter was released. “The full report should be released and Robert Mueller should testify to its findings.”
Another presidential aspirant, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised the issue warily.
“I hope this motivates all of us to stay focused on the issues that really impact our lives in the everyday,” Buttigieg told MSNBC, noting that Democrats shouldn’t be distracted by what Trump does or says because “part of how we lost our way in 2016 was it was much too much about him and it left a lot of people back home saying, ‘O.K., but nobody’s talking about me.’”
Actually, issues of far greater concern to the American public will continue to be ignored as politicians jockey to establish a storyline that makes them and their ideologies look better than whatever tale is being woven by their opponents.
In reality, the release of the Mueller report and the Barr letter has changed very little about what the average American thinks about Trump’s involvement with the Russians. It will be some time in the future, if ever, before indisputable facts are obvious to all — maybe in time for the American public to render an ultimate verdict at the presidential ballot box in 2020.
Meanwhile, the divided politics of our nation continues unabated as the Washington spin machine whirs along.