One of the comments that stuck with me after the release of the full Mueller report was that Attorney General Barr had not played it down the middle. Putting the conclusions out first (NO INDICTMENT) allowed the president to take a victory lap. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi started talking about health care, not impeachment. He gave the White House first dibs on redactions. He made Congress wait and then controlled what it received. In fact, since the first “dump,” it has been dribbling the report out for so long that the Democrats are still fighting about redactions. (Let’s see, there’s jobs and health care and global warming and redactions …) And troubling details, available only this week, feel like old news.
The Republicans won this round, simple as that, not because their positions were fully vindicated but because by the time you could even begin to dig into the details, they no longer mattered.
I’m not saying it was right. I’m just saying that, in terms of political strategy, it was done so well that it was almost invisible to the end.
Consider the timing. Maybe Mueller picked a Friday afternoon to announce delivery of the report. Or maybe he didn’t notice. But somebody surely did. You always deliver bad news on Friday afternoon, on the edge of the weekend, when even the die-hard reporters had been planning a day off, not to mention most Americans. By Monday morning, when people pay attention, the big story was Barr’s summary that there was insufficient evidence to justify any further indictments. And, of course, there were President Trump’s harsh denunciations of the whole effort as politics.
But to release the almost full report the Thursday before Good Friday, Passover and Easter, three holidays in a row? Of all the weekends in the whole year, could you find one (maybe Christmas) during which people are less interested in politics or less eager to talk about it? Sure, there will be talk among families who share the same passions; but at most houses, there will be literal, if not figurative, “no politics” signs on the table to keep the peace. Could that be better for the Republican strategy?
Eventually, they may allow Mueller to testify before a Senate committee of would-be presidents. Why not? Mueller knows how to handle himself: calmly, steadily, boringly. The greater risk is not that Mueller will launch an attack on the president but that the Democrats will launch one on Mueller. The even bigger risk, especially on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is that there is too much potential grandstanding among the possible presidents.
What I found most surprising was not the General Barr, a super-smart lawyer who has lived in the sphere where law and politics intersect, pulled this off but that people are so shocked that he would. Of course he would — and skillfully, within legal bounds, which had their own justification, even if … Which is precisely why he was chosen.
The Mueller report repeats what we had heard: that Trump erupted when told of Mueller’s appointment in White House meeting with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. With others present, he berated Sessions for not “protecting” him.
Barr did, to the maximum extent he lawfully could. He did the job Trump appointed him to do.
He did not, one critic loudly lamented, present a balanced summary of the report, and he delayed providing a redacted version, leaving Democrats talking to themselves at Easter/Passover dinner.
According to the apocryphal story, when John Kennedy was president elect and only a few Cabinet positions remained to be filled, the most important being attorney general, he joked that he would open the door one cold winter morning and, if there were no press corps, whisper, “It’s Bobby.”
And it was. President Kennedy appointed his brother to be attorney general. It was explained to me long ago: The AG is the only one who can get you indicted, so of all the Cabinet jobs, this is the one where loyalty is most critical, and must be handled most skillfully. More history: AG Elliot Richardson, who was not personally close to Richard Nixon, took down his presidency by refusing to fire Archibald Cox (and not being able to convince the president that he had to back down). Maybe he didn’t want to.
Barr didn’t do anything “wrong,” unless you think that the attorney general occupies a special position in the Cabinet. Actually, I do, but that is because I believe that the rule of law and the principle that no one is above the law are fundamental to our democracy. I promise you the president doesn’t agree. He picked Bill Barr to protect him within the limits of the law (one hopes), and that is just what he did during this rollout. You don’t have to like them or approve of him to recognize a skilled rollout for what it is: another sign that Trump will not easily be beaten.