Justice Department officials defended the decision by Attorney General William P. Barr to declare that investigators lacked evidence to prove that President Trump illegally obstructed justice.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times
Justice Department officials defended the decision by Attorney General William P. Barr to declare that investigators lacked evidence to prove that President Trump illegally obstructed justice.CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times
By Charlie Savage, Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner
March 25, 2019
WASHINGTON — William P. Barr was a lawyer in private practice in June when he wrote an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department that was sharply skeptical of the special counsel’s inquiry into whether President Trump illegally obstructed justice. Nine months later, Mr. Trump is cleared of that offense, and he has Mr. Barr, his new attorney general, to thank. Mr. Barr’s decision to declare that evidence fell short of proving Mr. Trump illegally obstructed the Russia inquiry was an extraordinary outcome to a narrative that has unspooled over nearly two years. Robert S. Mueller III was appointed as special counsel to remove the threat of political interference from an investigation involving the president, but he reached no conclusion on the key question of whether Mr. Trump committed an obstruction-of-justice offense. Mr. Barr stepped in to make the determination, bringing the specter of politics back into the case. Senior Justice Department officials defended his decision as prudent and within his purview, but it reignited a debate about the role of American law enforcement in politically charged federal investigations that has roiled since James B. Comey, as F.B.I. director in 2016, excoriated Hillary Clinton even in announcing that he was recommending she not be charged over her handling of classified emails.
WASHINGTON — After Watergate, it was unthinkable that a president would fire an F.B.I. director who was investigating him or his associates. Or force out an attorney general for failing to protect him from an investigation. Or dangle pardons before potential witnesses against him.
But the end of the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, made clear that President Trump had successfully thrown out the unwritten rules that had bound other chief executives in the 45 years since President Richard M. Nixon resigned under fire, effectively expanding presidential power in a dramatic way.
Mr. Mueller’s decision to not take a position on whether Mr. Trump’s many norm-shattering interventions in the law enforcement system constituted obstruction of justice means that future occupants of the White House will feel entitled to take similar actions. More than perhaps any other outcome of the Mueller investigation, this may become its most enduring legacy.
To Mr. Trump and his allies, this is the correct result, a restoration of the rightful authority of a president over the executive branch as stipulated in the Constitution. Under the theory that Mr. Trump’s legal team advanced, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. work for the president and therefore a president can order investigations opened or closed, fire prosecutors, grant pardons or otherwise use his constitutional power even if it seems overtly self-interested or political.
It was that view that Attorney General William P. Barr embraced in a 19-page memo he drafted last year as a private citizen and sent unsolicited to the White House months before Mr. Trump appointed him to lead the Justice Department. And it was that same view that informed Mr. Barr’s decision on Sunday to make the ruling that Mr. Mueller would not and declare that Mr. Trump had not obstructed justice.
“I celebrate this, I salute this, I think it is a very good thing because the possibility of having the president investigated because of his exercise of his core constitutional powers was a very, very bad thing to have out there,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a former Republican Justice Department official who has written on the topic. “It debilitates the government at all levels.”
To Mr. Trump’s critics, however, the development represents a dangerous degradation of the rule of law, handing a president almost complete leeway to thwart any effort by federal law enforcement authorities to scrutinize his actions almost as if he were a king.
“They’re just trying to create a new kind of monarchy in the United States and have a president who’s not accountable,” said former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York Democrat who sat on the House Judiciary Committee that passed articles of impeachment against Mr. Nixon for obstruction of justice and other charges before his resignation in August 1974.
Politics abhors a vacuum and Attorney General Bill Barr filled it Sunday when he tried to exonerate Donald Trump using the “Mueller report” as a fig leaf. Barr acted as judge and jury in a three page letter deeming Trump’s innocence without any evidence, explanation, or even the Mueller report itself
First, let me start with a fact. We have not seen the Mueller report. Let me repeat that…We have not seen the Mueller report. Not one page. Not one paragraph. Not one period. Nothing. So, we have no idea what is in it, what Mueller did, what Mueller said, and what, if anything, Barr used from it to make his decisions.
Speaking of decisions, if Barr is to be believed – and that’s a big if – then Mueller wrote a report that didn’t make one decision regarding any crimes he examined. Is this possible? It is hard to believe and highly unusual, if true.