WATCH: Barr’s Ridiculous Explanation of the Difference Between Firing and Removing a Special Counsel
There was a moment early in Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that seemed to perfectly capture the absurdity of the contortions President Trump’s defenders have to perform to find a narrow legal ground to proclaim that he did not obstruct justice in the Russia investigation.
It came during a back-and-forth between Barr and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) over whether Trump pressured his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to get Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller. The Mueller report documents Trump’s efforts, most notably his calling McGahn at home on June 17, 2017, and telling him to call Rosenstein, then the Acting Attorney General, to say that Mueller “had conflicts of interest and must be removed.”
Since Mueller punted on determining whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice, Barr made the decision. In his telling, he felt the government would not be able to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the president was trying to obstruct justice.
Barr told Feinstein there is a “spectrum” of interpretation of the event. On one end is the president saying he told McGahn simply to raise the conflict of interest with Rosenstein and let him make the decision. At the other end is McGahn saying he felt more “directed” to get Mueller fired.
Whatever the truth that lay in between those two ends of the spectrum, Barr said “There is something very different between firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending the investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict that suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.”
On technical legal grounds, this might be a reasonable interpretation. But it’s worth noting the “conflicts” that Trump has publicly stated elsewhere he believes Mueller had. The president has offered two. One is that he believes Mueller held a grudge against him because Trump did not hire him as director of the FBI after he fired James Comey. The second is that Mueller resigned his membership from one of Trump’s golf clubs in 2011 over what Trump termed a “nasty” dispute over fees.
The evidence for both these charges is nonexistent. What they suggest instead is just how desperately Trump was flailing in looking for an excuse to claim Mueller was out to get him for personal reasons. They are a measure of Trump’s paranoia, and the way he views everything through a personal lens, with no sense of awareness of the institutional obligations of the government he leads. Barr neatly sidesteps whether those excuses indicate Trump was trying to shut down the investigation on absurd pretenses, and whether such absurdities rise to a legal standard of corrupt intent.
But beyond that, Barr’s assertion requires the public to believe that Trump would not have objected to another special counsel, or would not have found some other far-fetched “conflict” he believed a new special counsel to have. It simply flies against everything the public has come to learn about Donald Trump. That might work in a court of law, but it should be laughed right out of the court of public opinion.
Watch the exchange up top, via C-SPAN.