Welcome to the D.C. Memo, which — even after all our work — Attorney General William P. Barr could probably summarize in like 6.5 words if he needed to. This week, the Mueller report goes into the Washington meat grinder, the media goes after itself, and Kloby talks more about being a prosecutor.
But before we get to all that, just a quick reminder that the Memo is brought to you by the fine people at MinnPost, which exists because of the generosity of its members. So if you like, love or just read us for the cartoons (wait, that’s the The New Yorker), please consider becoming a member today.
So let’s get to it.
Three big things
The Barr minimum: As you might have heard, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election last week. And on Sunday, Attorney General William P. Barr rendered his verdict on Mueller’s findings, saying Mueller had not established, as the New York Times put it, that “President Trump or any of his aides coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference.” Barr also said Trump did not obstruct justice, despite the fact the Mueller himself specifically declined to render any judgment on that charge.
Trump, no surprise, immediately declared victory, or — in his words — “complete and total exoneration.” And there is no argument that the development was good news for the president, so much so that it was immediately followed by a spate of stories outlining his plans to use the findings to recharge his agenda; to punish “enemies”; and to crush all those hapless Democrats running against him in 2020.
If you were the kind of person who spends too much time on Twitter or watching cable TV, in fact, you might have wondered if the Democrats should even run anyone in 2020, just to save themselves the embarrassment of being on the wrong end of what would obviously be the biggest defeat since Walter Mondale made the blunder of telling the truth.
And yet in the days that followed, a couple of curious things happened. For one thing, people began to closely parse what Barr had actually said, and not said, in the memo summarizing Mueller’s report, especially the part about his decision regarding obstruction of justice, a point that came under particular scrutiny given Barr’s previous comments on the matter. As the Times put it:
In his letter, Mr. Barr said Mr. Mueller had concluded that the evidence did not show that Mr. Trump or anyone involved with his campaign could be prosecuted for conspiring with the Russian government in its election interference operation — a determination that Mr. Mueller and his deputies had relayed during their March 5 briefing. But the special counsel had been far more equivocal about whether Mr. Trump had illegally sought to obstruct that investigation….
While Mr. Barr did not detail his reasoning for deciding on the case, he appeared to be focusing on the question of whether investigators could prove Mr. Trump had “corrupt intent” in instances where the available evidence about his motivations was ambiguous. Obstruction cases often turn on whether prosecutors can prove that someone acted with an illegitimate motive.
Mr. Barr noted that Mr. Mueller had said there was insufficient evidence to prove any underlying offense of conspiring with Russia, and that “the absence of such evidence bears upon the president’s intent.”
But in narrowly focusing on a lack of evidence that the Trump campaign reached any agreement with the Russian government on sabotaging the election, legal experts said, Mr. Barr left out other reasons the president may have had for wanting to stymie a wide-ranging investigation: It could uncover other crimes and embarrassing facts.
Indeed, it did. The special counsel investigation uncovered a scheme between the president and his former lawyer Michael D. Cohen to violate campaign finance laws by paying hush money to an adult-film actress who alleged an affair with Mr. Trump, which he denies. Other matters related to the president that spun off from the special counsel’s work remain under scrutiny, including financial dealings by his inaugural committee and family business.
The other thing that happened, at least once people stopped losing their Schiff, was to notice how little anybody knew about the contents of the actual underlying document. After all, Mueller’s report, which itself summarized 22 months of work, interviews with scores witnesses and thousands of documents, was summarized by Barr in a rather tidy four pages. Your pre-teen’s book report on “White Fang” probably had more detail.
Which means there are more than a few questions that remain about the whole episode. As longtime Mueller watcher Garrett M. Graff wrote in Wired:
Perhaps most important and most puzzling: Why all the lies and cover-ups—by Michael Flynn, regarding his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak; by Paul Manafort about his dealings with Kilimnik; by Trump about his Moscow Tower; by Stone about his contacts with Wikileaks; by various officials about their contacts with Russians; by Papadopoulos, and more?
Mueller’s full report may answer some or even many of these and the almost countless other beguiling conundrums and odd circumstances that have swirled among the probe’s major figures. And yet, the fact that Mueller and perhaps the most talented team of investigators ever assembled by the Justice Department, given millions of dollars and thousands of subpoenas, apparently couldn’t come up with definitive answers themselves leaves open the question of whether we’ll ever know what really transpired inside the Trump campaign and the Russian attack on the 2016 election.
The good news for Trump and the Republicans who support him, of course, is that it may take weeks or months before anybody gets answers to those questions, if ever. The bad news for Trump and his followers, at least politically, is that the euphoria of “winning” might actually cause them to follow through on the things they want to do.
Humiliation nation. Of course, we all know who the real loser in the whole Mueller saga is: the media. Barr’s verdict was still in diapers when talk of how the media needed to have a “reckoning” about its coverage of Russian interference in the election and the Mueller probe began to appear.
That’s entirely expected from some corners, of course — Sean Hannity is contractually required to mutter “deep state” several times a broadcast — but it also came from the left, where writers like Matt Taibbi penned a long you-a culpa about media coverage of the story, and where longtime skeptics of the story like Glenn Greenwald took to the airwaves to ever-so-graciously pat himself on the back.
It was hardly a small-group exercise, though. Everyone from Politico to the New York Times to Bloomberg jumped in with the sort what-went-wrong stories that were reminiscent of all those Cletus safari pieces written in the wake of the 2016 election.
If this is at all surprising, it shouldn’t be. The media, like everything, is more diverse than it is often given credit for being. And yet if there is one constant in the industry — especially among those in the Washington press corps — it’s that the only thing media people like more than talking about the media is talking about about how much the media sucks. If self-flagellation were a viable business model, every newspaper in America would have the market cap of Amazon.
All of which is just another way of saying that — much like that “total and complete exoneration” of Trump — the abject humiliation of the media may not end up being as total and complete as some people would like to believe.
Chasing Amy, chasing donors: Another week, another round of tough questions for Amy Klobuchar on her time as Hennepin County Attorney. Hot on the heels of a similar story in The Washington Post last week, APM Reports and Minnesota Public Radio wrote a detailed account of Klobuchar’s record, finding she not only declined to charge police officers who killed people in the line of duty, but did not pursue claims of police misconduct and in recent years has backed fewer criminal justice bills in Congress than fellow candidates for president.
Klobuchar has long campaigned on her work as prosecutor, but some of her decisions in the office are becoming a liability during her bid for president. She responded to only some questions from APM Reports, but said she doesn’t “have a perfect record.”
“I promise you, every single day in that job I tried to put myself in other people’s shoes to try to do the right thing,” Klobuchar said.
On the campaign trail, Klobuchar rolled out a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan she deemed her “top budget priority,” in a post on Medium. The package has something for everyone: Road and bridge repairs, public transit and high-speed rail, rural broadband to connect everyone to the world wide web by 2022 and more. It would be paid for in part by raising corporate taxes and closing loopholes.
While President Trump has also touted an infrastructure plan, Klobuchar criticized it as “a mirage” that “leaves the details up to lawmakers.” (Wait, isn’t Klobuchar one of those lawmakers?)
Klobuchar also weighed in on two of the biggest stories in Washington, calling for Barr to release the full Mueller report and voting “present” on the Green New Deal in the Senate instead of “yes” or “no.” The Green New Deal went down 57-0, with most Democrats choosing to lodge what was, in effect, a protest vote at what they saw as a political stunt by the GOP.
Klobuchar has stuck to her strategy of walking a more centrist path, but she has struggled to gain traction in a crowded primary. The Hill reported Klobuchar sent out a fundraising ask on Wednesday to get enough donors to qualify for debates. By contrast, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has enjoyed a boomlet of late. He hit the 65,000 donor threshold on March 16, and one survey of likely caucusgoers in Iowa had him in third, narrowly ahead of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris (who this week proposed that teachers should get a $13,500 salary hike to help recruit people to the job).
Joe Biden, a putative frontrunner for the nomination, spent the week expressing regret for how he handled allegations of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill in the early 1990s against Clarence Thomas, who was fighting to be confirmed to the Supreme Court at the time. Biden voted against Thomas, but he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and oversaw a hearing in which some aggressively questioned Hill’s credibility. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said.