The Mueller report has finally been released, and while there’s a lot in there to discuss, there isn’t too much that we didn’t mostly know already (as I predicted earlier).
At the moment I want to focus on another issue though. Last month Attorney General Barr refused to release the report summary that Mueller had written up, and instead issued his own summary of “principle conclusions” of the report.
It’s now clear that this was an attempt to spin the report in a way that helps Trump. And it also turns out that this isn’t the first time Barr has pulled this trick.
As an exercise in spin, most of his claims are technically true, if one takes care to read them in a narrow lawyerly way. It’s fair to say his presentation was dishonest, but can I really go as far as to say he lied?
Yes. Yes, I can. Because I stuck a marker in the ground. Let me explain:
In an attempt to keep myself intellectually honest (or at least, more honest than most) I sometimes will explicitly note some claim that is disputed between “my side” and “the other side” and commit myself to judging the controversy in question based on who’s account ends up being accurate.
I think of this a sticking a marker in the ground, so when I face the inevitable temptation to shift the goal posts when the evidence shows something I don’t like, I can hopefully keep myself from slipping subconsciously into post hoc rationalizations.
I aim for claims where the facts are likely to come out. Here’s an example:
A couple months ago there was an episode in which a group of high-school students were on a trip to DC, wearing MAGA hats, and they reportedly surrounded and mocked a Native American elder. Liberals were outraged.
Conservatives pushed back and claimed that the students didn’t initiate the confrontation and weren’t mocking the elder at all. They were just kids out on a school trip, and they were attacked merely for looking like they supported Trump.
The liberals claimed that the kids were chanting “Build the wall!” at the non-white Americans. The conservatives denied this.
I figured that would be a good place to stick my marker in the ground. There were videos of encounter, and it seemed likely that we’d get a definitive answer to whether the boys were raising a racist chant.
And it turns out the conservatives were right. Apparently the boys were chanting “Get Jamal!” and the Native American elder and some others misheard it as “Build the wall!”
So, even though the boys were clearly being immature jerks (and, yes, I am very grateful that there were no cellphone recordings of my teen years), I’m saying their account was more accurate than that of the liberals who were condemning them.
I recommend this practice of “sticking a marker in the ground” to my students, and to my readers. It’s similar to the practice of cross-checking your biases with independent smart people.
So when I read Barr’s summary of the principle conclusions, I stuck a marker in the ground to measure whether the summary was accurate.
I’ve been paying attention to the fact that the the DoJ Office of Legal Counsel has a policy against indicting a sitting president. Barr reported that Mueller did not take a stand on whether Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice (and then Barr and Rosenstein conveniently and quickly decided that Trump wasn’t guilty) — and he said that the OLC guidance didn’t play a role in this decision.
I wondered about this, because it seemed likely to me that the OLC memo would play a significant role in Mueller’s decisions, and because it seems to me that there’s a very large steaming heap of evidence that Trump is in fact guilty of obstruction of justice.
So I stuck a marker in the ground. Did the OLC memo deter Mueller from indicting Trump?
And when we got to see the report last week it was crystal clear that the OLC policy is the only thing that prevented Mueller from indicting Trump. He lays out all the evidence that Trump is guilty, but he refuses to draw the obvious conclusion, because he thinks he’s not allowed to. He instead says — implicitly but obviously — that congress needs to impeach Trump if we want to hold him accountable for the crimes he’s committed.
So I went back and reread Barr’s “summary” and now I see that he never explicitly said that *Mueller* didn’t rely on the OLC policy, he says that *he and Rosenstein* didn’t rely on it when they decided that they didn’t want to charge Trump with obstruction of justice (obstruction that, as it happens, they helped out with).
So Barr didn’t say anything false. But my marker was already placed. Barr was dishonestly offering a sanitized version of the report to limit the political repercussions for his partisan allies; something he’s done before apparently.
If you spin things so hard that I misunderstand what you’re saying, then you lied to me.
released a summary of the “principle conclusions” of the Mueller report, and refused to release the summary that Mueller himself provided