The average person taking in the news this weekend would likely come to the conclusion that the long-anticipated "Mueller report" has been released and that it vindicates Donald Trump in his relentless claims that there was "NO COLLUSION" with a criminal Russian conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 election by stealing emails from Democratic officials.
The truth, however, is somewhat different. What actually happened over the weekend is that after two years of trying, President Trump successfully derailed an investigation into this question. As he has also done for the last two years, he continues to cover up the evidence about the exact nature of his relationship to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. So we are still facing the question we've been facing for two years: If Trump is innocent, as he claims, than why does he act so terrified of getting caught?
"A Cloud Over Trump's Presidency Is Lifted," the headline at the New York Times reads, with reporter Peter Baker digging further into this metaphor and assigning no agency to Trump, writing that the "darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday."
In reality, Trump has been anything but passive. Even before Robert Mueller was hired as a special counsel to investigate this case, Trump was leveraging the power of the presidency to shut down any inquiry into his relationship with Russia. Early in his presidency, Trump was so freaked out by the FBI's investigation of Michael Flynn, his campaign associate and briefly his national security adviser, that he fired FBI director James Comey. Immediately after that, Trump told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S., in the Oval Office, that doing so would relieve the "great pressure" of such an investigation.
When Mueller's investigation began, Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was reluctantly pressured into recusing himself because of his own contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign. Trump then launched an all-out attack on Sessions, repeatedly trying to get him to un-recuse himself, clearly eager to have an ally in place to thwart the investigation. When Sessions declined to do his bidding, Trump pushed him out and replaced him first with Matt Whitaker (a thoroughly unqualified flunky) and then with William Barr, who had written a lengthy unsolicited memo to the Department of Justice about his disapproval of the Mueller investigation.
It certainly appears that Barr is doing what he was hired to do: Stymie the investigation. After months of Mueller trying to get Trump to sit down for an interview, those efforts ended and the report was filed without that interview. Barr seems incredibly eager to make this whole thing go away, writing a hasty summary of his own interpretation of the Mueller report. Considering Barr's long-standing hostility to the very existence of this investigation, he seems unsurprisingly more concerned with spinning the evidence to minimize the severity of Trump's actions than in telling the full story about Mueller's findings.
Much has been made of the fact that Barr and Mueller are longtime friends outside of work, which most people in the media have assumed means that Barr is unlikely to interfere with Mueller's work. But one could turn that around: Maybe Mueller's personal affection for Barr made him reluctant to interfere with the job the new attorney general was obviously hired to do, which is to squelch the investigation as thoroughly as possible.
As Will Saletan at Slate noted, Barr uses a lot of weasel words and sleight-of-hand in his summary to limit the scope of what counts as "collusion." and does so in such a way that raises suspicion that there's all kinds of evidence of misdeeds he simply skates past. But there's no way to know for sure unless and until Mueller's report and all the underlying evidence is made public, or at least shared with the House Intelligence Committee. Barr, who is already showing evidence of being a Trump loyalist, will likely be reluctant to do that.
Barr claims that he wishes "to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies." But so far the indications on that front aren't promising. There's good reason to suspect that Barr will find all manner of regulations he can use to argue against releasing the full report and the underlying evidence.
Despite Barr's conclusion on the secondary question of Mueller's investigation -- that there "is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense" -- Trump has clearly and publicly tried to obstruct justice, starting with the firing of Comey and including the hire of Barr himself. Viewed that way, an instrument of obstruction of justice is presenting what he claims is a definitive opinion about whether or not there was obstruction of justice.
Maybe all that happened because Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign trying to secure a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, as Michael Cohen has attested, and simply didn't want that obvious corruption to go public. Or maybe he and his campaign were colluding to interfere with the election, if not directly with the Russians, then through cut-outs like Natalia Veselnitskaya, who appears to have had a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. where she lobbied him to remove sanctions against Russian companies and oligarchs in exchange for promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
We can't really answer those questions, because there is no public Mueller report and there is every sign that Barr will use his power to shield the president from the consequences of such transparency.
For two years, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, under the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes, did everything in its power to stifle inquiry into Trump's Russia dealings and cover up any potential crimes by Trump or his associates, all while pretending to investigate. Barr's letter seems like more of the same: Republican officials using the trappings of official investigation to gaslight the public about Trump's corruption and shield him from facing serious consequences for his corrupt behavior.
The size and scale of this cover-up is intimidating, no doubt. It seems nearly every Republican official reflexively believes that his job is to hide information and distort the meaning of what is publicly known. That collective understanding has been as effective, if not more so, than a deliberate and conscious conspiracy to protect the president. In the face of this, it's easy to see why so many in the media are eager to lie down and let the Republican cover-up work. It's not like the truth is going to change anybody's mind. If there was a tape of Trump agreeing to sell out the country directly to Putin, Trump's voters would mostly be thrilled that treasonous behavior is so good at triggering the liberals.
But journalists, pundits and voters mustn't let the extensive gaslighting campaign bamboozle us. We know Trump obstructed justice: He did it in public, starting with the Comey firing. We know he literally asked the Russians to steal emails from Hillary Clinton, because he did that live on TV. We have good reason to believe that Russian intelligence took the request seriously, because within 24 hours, they were doing exactly as Trump asked. We know that Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner took a meeting with Russians promising "dirt" in exchange for sanctions relief, and we know that Trump has tried to use his power to dial down sanctions on Russia. We know that Donald Trump stood by Vladimir Putin in public, arguing that Putin's denials should be believed and that the FBI's findings that Russian agents orchestrated the 2016 election interference were false.
What we don't know is the extent of the obstruction and collusion behind closed doors, because there's been such a massive and, so far, successful effort at a cover-up. Barr's sleazy move of putting out a brief letter full of weasel words and letting people assume that's the "Mueller report" needs to be understood in that context.
In the end, this is yet another reminder that the entire Republican Party has been consumed by the corruption of the Trump administration. That's why it's not enough to talk of ousting Trump, either through impeachment or the likelier option of defeating him at the ballot box in November of next year. The reason Trump got so far in Republican politics in the first place is because the party is irredeemably corrupt, and he owes his continued safety entirely to that corruption.
It's easy to get into the weeds on the various scandals and engage in line-by-line debates over the evidence, but that's not the important part. The bigger picture is clear: Republicans are corrupt and will go to great lengths to cover up criminality. They are taking down the country with their greed and depravity. Bill Barr's fake version of the Mueller report is just the latest example.