If William Barr demonstrated anything Thursday, it’s that if you ever get in trouble and the judicial system allows you to pick who will supervise any potential investigation of your misconduct, the current U.S. attorney general might be your best possible option. In his much-anticipated news conference, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer showed a level of empathy for President Donald Trump that defense attorneys can only dream about from the other side of the table.
In announcing the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election (which weren’t actually released until much later in the morning), Mr. Barr spent very little time castigating the 34 individuals actually charged by Mr. Mueller’s team (mentioning none of them by name but at least noting the affiliation of many with Russia’s GRU or Internet Research Agency). But he did spend much time explaining how President Trump’s behavior — his potential obstruction of justice of which Mr. Mueller found numerous examples — was understandable when viewed in context.
The president, Mr. Barr noted, was “frustrated and angered” by the “unprecedented” situation and the “relentless speculation in the news media” about his personal culpability. He held a “sincere belief” that the investigation was undermining his presidency. President Trump had “non-corrupt” motives, cooperated with requests for documents by the special counsel and chose not to assert executive privilege and insist on further redaction in the report released to the public although, Mr. Barr observed, he would have been in his rights to do so.
Whether Mr. Barr was correct to not pursue an obstruction of justice charge is debatable (and a matter to be fully explored as the 400-page report is more thoroughly digested in the coming days), but whether the attorney general is a softy when it comes to his employer is not. What elevates the Barr press conference to Alternative Fact of the Week honors is its reality-bending deference to the investigative targets — particularly members of the Trump re-election team — and presidential behavior from dictating false explanations to dangling executive pardons. Anyone who has ever covered a federal investigation will tell you that prosecutors aren’t normally so invested in defending their targets, particularly ones not actually cleared of obstruction by a former FBI director.
One can no more imagine a local prosecutor standing in front of a podium and giving such a heartfelt defense of a drug dealer, gang leader or local corrupt politician because he has chosen not to file charges than one can imagine a defense attorney announcing, hey, we dodged that bullet but my client is still guilty as sin. As Mr. Barr himself noted in his letter summarizing the Mueller findings released last month, Mr. Mueller wrote this about obstruction: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” That’s just not what prosecutors do. If they choose not to indict, they clam up or perhaps issue some terse press release noting that the office is not filing charges “at this time” or something along those lines. Why? Because it’s all about the crimes a prosecutor can prove in court, not about the ones committed.
Small wonder that Democrats in Congress want to hear about the findings from Mr. Mueller himself, and, to his credit, Mr. Barr said he won’t resist such a move. There is simply too much evidence that President Trump behaved badly to accept all the nonsense of a “witch hunt” that continued to spew out of the Trump Twitter account and the amen corner of the right-wing media Thursday afternoon. There are still the facts of the James Comey firing, Mr. Trump’s discouragement of witnesses from cooperating and promise of future pardons and on and on, much of which happened in full public view — as noted in the Mueller report, incidentally. Chances are what spared Mr. Trump from an obstruction charge was not a lack of intent so much as a lack of aides willing to carry out his orders.