Attorney General William Barr spoke to an audience of one, President Donald Trump, and in so doing let down 329 million Americans.
After too many days, the Justice Department on Thursday finally released a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller ‘s findings on Russian government interference in the 2016 election. It’s not hard to see why Barr dragged his feet – the report has reams of detail on Russia’s information warfare, connections with the Trump campaign and the lines Trump crossed in the name of self-preservation. It also fundamentally undermines the spin that Barr put on the report in his March 24 letter to congressional leaders.
Long before the report was released, we knew quite a lot about the Kremlin’s effort to elect Trump. Through indictments and public reporting, we’ve learned that the two camps were in regular contact, with at least 28 meetings and more than 100 contacts between the Trump campaign and transition team and Kremlin-linked figures.
We also knew that many of the president’s closest associates, including his former national security adviser, campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal lawyer and foreign policy campaign adviser, were convicted or pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes.
The report further confirmed that Russians deployed an 80-person, multimillion-dollar digital campaign to undermine our fair and free elections by sowing division and spreading disinformation – particularly about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A troll farm with links to the Kremlin, the Internet Research Agency, reportedly, according to Mueller, used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to incite and amplify chaos in the most aggressive election intervention by a hostile power in American history.
Russian intelligence operatives reportedly hacked Democratic Party computer networks and the email accounts of Clinton campaign volunteers and employees (including mine). Senior Russian intelligence operatives now under indictment reportedly stole hundreds of thousands of documents and published them under the cover of DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks. Mueller, through indictments and his partially redacted report, confirmed that the Trump campaign communicated with WikiLeaks, and that WikiLeaks was a conduit for the Russian government.
Trump went out of his way to call attention to WikiLeaks. He mentioned the website 164 times – an average of more than five times per day – during the final month of the campaign, and mentioned it during all three presidential debates.
Trump tweeted about WikiLeaks at least 10 times in that same time period. At least one of those tweets came just 15 minutes after WikiLeaks messaged Donald Trump Jr. suggesting that Donald Trump promote the latest batch of hacked emails – which he promptly did.
Trump didn’t just watch this happen. He actively supported it, even inviting the Russians to steal Clinton’s emails. The interactions between WikiLeaks and Trump operatives are the most heavily redacted part of the report. Nonetheless, we learned in the Mueller report that by late summer 2016, Trump seemed to have advance warning of what WikiLeaks would be releasing, as evidenced by his conversation with then-deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates.
That’s it. That’s the ballgame right there. The Trump campaign knew that Russian intelligence hacked their political opponent, knew at least something about how stolen content would be disseminated and made the stolen materials a part of the campaign strategy.
This was an assault on our democracy, perpetrated by the Kremlin and its cutouts and supported by the now-president of the United States.
The report explains why Trump was so determined to undermine and obstruct this investigation. Perhaps most troubling, the report completely undermines the attorney general’s spin in his March letter that “The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” The report doesn’t say, “I can’t make up my mind.” Rather, Mueller lays out a devastating case against the president, but explicitly says in the introduction to the obstruction section that given the Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president, it would be unfair to draw the conclusion that seems obvious from the facts that follow, because Trump wouldn’t be able to defend himself in a court of law.
Our country now faces an important question of accountability. What happens when a presidential candidate teams up with a hostile foreign power to undermine an election? Do we care about potentially irreversible damage to our democratic institutions, political norms and national security? Do we think an attorney general, who is acting as the president’s defense counsel rather than the top lawyer for the American people, can be trusted? Do we think the dangerous precedents set here are worth looking into?
Mueller got us this far. Now it’s Congress’s turn to weigh the evidence against the president, decide what merits a response and act in the best interests of our democracy.
John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, served as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
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